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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

July 29, 2005

Air Date: July 29, 2005



The Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Fact or Fiction?

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A remote bayou in eastern Arkansas entered the national spotlight last April after the ivory-billed woodpecker, believed extinct since the 1930's, was reportedly rediscovered there. The news brought new hope for birders, a wave of tourism, and $10 million in federal money for habitat conservation. But now, another group of scientists is disputing the evidence, saying the bird thought to be an ivory-billed could actually be the common pileated woodpecker. Guest host Jeff Young speaks with Tim Gallagher, who claims he saw the bird, as well as Dr. Jerry Jackson, a skeptic.

Female Ivory-billed Woodpecker at nest hole. (Photo: James T. Tanner, 1937) (12:00)

Judging Roberts

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President Bush's Supreme Court nominee John Roberts is facing scrutiny from all sides, and environmental groups are among the many who are sifting through his two-year record as a judge to see just what kind of Justice he might make. Host Jeff Young talks with Robert Percival, law professor at the University of Maryland, about some of Roberts' environmental opinions. (06:00)

The Hapless Toad / Ilsa Setziol

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The Arroyo toad of southern California has been getting a lot of attention with John Roberts’ nomination to the high court. Roberts wrote about the “hapless” toad in a controversial opinion. It's not the first time the toad landed in court and it won't be the last. Ilsa Setziol from member station KPCC in Los Angeles reports that a series of legal battles may determine the fate of this fragile amphibian. (06:00)

Return of the Wolf

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For most of the twentieth century, the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf was rendered extinct from Yellowstone National Park, mostly due to predator control by humans. But scientific research and a change in public sentiment led to efforts to re-colonize the park. Author Rick Bass comments that a decade after wolves were brought back to Yellowstone, the landscape has been dramatically transformed—in color and in the balance of nature. (03:30)

Emerging Science Note/Jockey Robotics / Max Thelander

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Living on Earth's Max Thelander reports on the latest innovation in the sport of camel racing. (01:20)

Listener Letters

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This week we dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. (02:30)

Mexico Transit / Jana Schroeder

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Mexico City has long been considered one of the most polluted cities in the world. The government has tried to clean its polluted air over the years by implementing vehicle emissions standards and inspection programs to cut down on old cars and other polluting vehicles. The city has also set its sights on improving public transportation and just this summer inaugurated a dedicated bus lane down one of its busiest streets. Producer Jana Schroeder climbed onboard the metrobus to find out how the new system is faring. (06:00)

Prius MPG

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These days, hybrid technology in cars is likely to be as much for increased horsepower as it is for better gas mileage. But not every hybrid owner is looking for more zip under the hood. Guest host Jeff Young talks with Dave Bassage of Walton, West Virginia, about his quest for the Holy Grail of fuel economy, 100 miles per gallon in a Toyota Prius. (06:45)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Jeff Young
GUESTS: Dr. Jerry Jackson, Tim Gallagher, Robert Percival, Dave Bassage
REPORTER: Ilsa Setziol, Jana Schroeder
NOTE: Max Thelander


YOUNG: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


YOUNG: I’m Jeff Young. Talk about putting a damper on the wildlife find of the century. Some scientists now question the celebrated rediscovery of the Ivory- billed woodpecker. Naturalists around the world rejoiced at news that the bird long thought extinct was spotted in an Arkansas swamp.

GALLAGHER: And it through across the bayou right in front of us in good light and we both yelled “Ivory-bill!” simultaneously.

YOUNG: Other scientists say it’s a woodpecker alright, but maybe not the ivory-billed.

JACKSON: We’re not questioning what those people thought they saw. But we can’t know what they actually saw without some kind of proof.

YOUNG: The continuing quest for proof of the elusive ivory- billed woodpecker.
Also, maxing out the mileage from hybrids. Getting the most from a gallon of gas gets downright competitive for some drivers. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.



ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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The Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Fact or Fiction?

Female Ivory-billed Woodpecker at nest hole. (Photo: James T. Tanner, 1937)

YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young, sitting in for Steve Curwood.

It’s the feel-good wildlife story of the year: dedicated birders trekking through the swamps of Arkansas catch sight of a majestic bird long-thought extinct. Then, armed with video evidence, the birders make a dramatic announcement in April-- they had rediscovered the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Or had they? Other scientists now say it could be a case of mistaken bird identity. Jerry Jackson of Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers is among the skeptics and he joins us now. Welcome.

JACKSON: It’s good to be here, thank you.

YOUNG: Why do you doubt this evidence that was presented?

JACKSON: Well, science moves forward on the strength of the evidence that’s presented and on the ability of other scientists to verify that evidence. The evidence that has been presented so far includes visual observations, that for which we have no documentation, and, in addition, a very brief video that is sub-optimal – admittedly sub-optimal even by those who wrote the paper in Science.

YOUNG: Okay, sub-optimal? Sounds like a delicate way of putting it. You don’t think that’s the bird, do you?

JACKSON: We don’t know whether it’s the bird or not. But we look at it as those authors have provided us with tremendous hope. And the world has reacted to the hope that they have provided. But hope is not truth – it’s only the fire that incites us to seek the truth, and the truth is still out there.

YOUNG: What do you think is in that video there?

JACKSON: Well, we have analyzed the video frame by frame and looked at the obvious potential, and that is that it’s a pileated woodpecker, and we believe the video shows a pileated woodpecker that is flying away. The pileated, incidentally, is a very common bird in bottomland forests across the southeast, and in old growth forests, and even in some suburban areas across North America. We’re not questioning what those people thought they saw, but we can’t know what they actually saw without some kind of proof.

YOUNG: Dr. Jerry Jackson teaches at the Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers, Florida. Thank you for being with us, Dr. Jackson.

JACKSON: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.

YOUNG: So, is the ivory-billed really back or was this just some wishful woodpecker thinking? Well, Tim Gallagher says it’s the real thing. He says he saw the bird in that Arkansas swamp and he joins us now from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Mr. Gallagher, welcome to Living on Earth.

GALLAGHER: Thank you, glad to be here.

YOUNG: Mr. Gallagher, you have a book just out that documents your search for the ivory-billed. It’s called “The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.” And it became the story of your sighting of the bird, but I guess it started out a little differently. You had this project to talk to other people who claimed that they had seen this bird in past years.

GALLAGHER: Yeah, I mean, some of these people had seen them years ago and everyone knew they’d seen them. It was in the famous Singer Tract of northeast Louisiana, and it was the last known stronghold of the ivory billed woodpecker. And I spoke with people who’d seen the birds in the 1930s and 40s, including some kids who grew up near there. And also Nancy Tanner, who was the widow of James Tanner, who was the Cornell grad student in the late 1930s who studied the birds there.

But I started also interviewing people who’d seen them more recently. Sometimes it was thirty or forty years ago. And I started visiting these people and interviewing them face to face about their sightings. And if they sounded credible I would go out there and check them out.

YOUNG: In the course of checking out one of these accounts this is what led you to this swamp with this great name, the Bayou de View. And quite a view it had, huh? What happened there?

GALLAGHER: Well, we’d spend the night out the night before, and we were going to float the entire length of this bayou looking for the bird. And we didn’t necessarily expect to see a bird, we just wanted to evaluate the habitat and see if this was worth spending any more time there. And on the second day out, about 1:15 in the afternoon, Bobby Harrison and I were canoeing down the bayou there and all of a sudden we spotted this bird coming up a side slew. And it just merged in front of us. We measured later, it was only 68 feet away, and it flew across the bayou right in front of us in good light and it was swinging up like it was going to land on this tree. And we both yelled “Ivory-Bill!” simultaneously, and probably spooked it, to be honest, cause it veered away from the tree and it flew further into the woods. We got over the side and jumped out of the canoe, sunk to our knees right away, and just were scrambling through there as fast as we could go, pulling ourselves over logs and through branches. And finally, after about 15 minutes of that, we sat down on a log and Bobby just let out a sigh and said, “I saw an ivory-bill,” and he started sobbing.

YOUNG: And you had some trepidation, I guess, about sharing with these scientists what you had seen.

GALLAGHER: Well, that’s right. For more than half a century, ivory-bill sightings have been looked at in the same way as a Sasquatch sighting, or Loch-Ness monster,. And people had been, other ornithologists had been laughed at in the past over the years. So it was quite a step. I hadn’t slept for a couple days just worrying about announcing this to the Lab of Ornithology that I’d seen this bird.

YOUNG: These expert birders and scientists, they joined you down there, you spent a – long story short – a lot of time in some thick mucky swamps. Several people claimed they saw the bird. You got a clip of video and published in Science magazine the results here. What do you make of this challenge to your evidence?

GALLAGHER: Well, I look at it like this is the scientific process: you publish a paper, and people give you their response and you from there. I mean, we welcome this kind of inquiry, and I’m absolutely certain that our results will be borne out, that we did, indeed, see an ivory-billed woodpecker out there.

YOUNG: Now, you are clearly a very passionate chaser of this bird. You believed very strongly that it was out there, and then you found it out there. Some might take this in and say, ‘maybe he believed it was out there so much that he saw it when it wasn’t there.’ Did your emotion taint your ability to be objective about what you were seeing?

GALLAGHER: Well, no it didn’t. I’ve always been an objective observer. As a bird watcher I tend to be conservative. I’m not the person who’s going out there and saying I found this fabulous bird over here – because I want to be sure. I want to be absolutely sure. When I saw that bird, I looked at the white going to the trailing edge of its wings, I honed in on that, I watched it fly for about another ten feet and I double-checked that again. There was no way that it could have been anything but an ivory-billed woodpecker. I mean, I know the birds in North America. This was a bird I’d never seen.

Female Ivory-billed Woodpecker at nest hole. (Photo: James T. Tanner, 1937)

YOUNG: If this bird has been out there and this is, as you put it, the “Holy Grail” for birders, why have other birders not seen it?

GALLAGHER: Well, actually, people ask me that a lot. They say, well, considering how many thousands of birdwatchers there are in the United States, surely if these birds still existed some people would be seeing them. But the problem is birdwatchers don’t go out to these places. When birdwatchers go to the swamp, 99 percent of them go about 100 feet out on the boardwalk. They don’t get down and dirty in the swamp. And they don’t spend a lot of time dressed in camouflage sitting still. It’s been people like hunters and fishermen who’ve been coming back with interesting reports. These are the people who’ve been ignored. So, it’s not surprising to me at all that this bird, considering how low its population must be, it’s not surprising that it could’ve gotten by under the radar screen for so long.

YOUNG: Clearly, your hope is that the rediscovery of the bird will trigger more action to protect what’s left of this sort of habitat. And you – or at least my interpretation of what you’re writing here is – that you’re a little miffed with the scientific establishment for not being more open to the possibility that the bird might be out there and that we should get about saving some of these woods.

I want to read an excerpt from the book. You write that “the belief that this bird is extinct has been held so strongly for so long that it has become a tenet adhered to by many ornithologists as rigidly and dogmatically as the tenets of the most fundamentalist religious sects.” I’m wondering, isn’t that a little harsh? I mean, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, don’t they?

GALLAGHER: Yeah, that’s right, but on the other hand, I’ve met scientists who said that they had heard of credible reports of sightings of ivory-bills, and they didn’t investigate them because they didn’t want to have it reflect badly on their careers. So, when it reaches the point where it has that kind of chilling effect on the science, then there’s a problem.

YOUNG: Now, as I understand, part of your argument in the book here is that there was more at stake in disputes like that than just the egos of the people or scientists involved. Your point is, what happens to the bird, or what did happen to the bird, if it was out there, people were seeing it, and those claims were disregarded, and there was no additional protection or action toward the bird?

GALLAGHER: That’s right. I mean, that’s really what we have to worry about here, too. We don’t want our conservation efforts to get stalled. This was a very neglected habitat. I mean, it’s one of the great ecological tragedies of the United States that all the southern bottomland swamp forests were not protected. They were cut for decade after decade, from the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century, until there was really nothing left.

This area where we’ve had the sightings really might just be a place the birds fly through – it’s a narrow area of swamp only about a mile wide. There’s a really huge wooded area to the south of there, and there’s a huge swamp to the north, and this might just be a passageway where the birds aren’t really spending a lot of time.

YOUNG: Hmm. So, a lot more hunting to do?

GALLAGHER: A lot more. Yeah, we’ve only looked at something like eight percent of the forests there. There’s half a million acres, and so it’s a huge, very daunting task.

YOUNG: It sounds like your life is going to be very busy.


YOUNG: And is this giving away too much, or do you have fresh evidence coming?

GALLAGHER: You know, I don’t know if I should talk about it before it’s published – actually, at the American Ornithologist Union meeting in Santa Barbara next month, we’ll have some evidence. We’ll present our acoustic evidence.

YOUNG: Well, I’m sure a lot of people will be listening.


YOUNG: Tim Gallagher is author of “The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory- Billed Woodpecker,” it’s published by Houghton-Mifflin. He is also editor of Living Bird magazine. Mr. Gallagher, thank you for talking with us.

GALLAGHER: Thank you, it was my pleasure.

[MUSIC: JoRane “Pour Gabrielle” from ‘You & Now’ (2005)]

YOUNG: There’s more about Gallagher’s account of the ivory-billed woodpecker at the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s website. The scientists challenging the evidence will publish their paper in an upcoming issue of the online journal Public Library of Science Biology. And you can link to both websites via ours at Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot o-r-g.

YOUNG: Coming up: Judging Judge Roberts on the Environment. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Related links:
- “The Grail Bird” by Tim Gallagher
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology on Ivory-billed Woodpecker
- Public Library of Science Biology

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[MUSIC: The Album Leaf “The Outer Banks” from ‘In A Safe Place (2004)]

Judging Roberts

YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. The U.S. Senate is gearing up for one of its biggest jobs: confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee. Judge John Roberts is the president’s pick to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Roberts served just two years as a federal judge, so Senators will likely have a lot of questions for him. Conservation groups say there are many things they’d like to know about Roberts too. Glenn Sugamelli with the group EarthJustice sees some red flags.

SUGAMELLI: He has a decision he wrote that calls into question the constitutional ability of Congress to protect endangered species, and his views on access to courts, the ability of people to go to court to make sure their rights are protected. We are not taking a formal position for or against his nomination. We are taking a formal position urging that the Senate look at it carefully. There’s only one chance to get it right.

YOUNG: Robert Percival has studied Judge Roberts through a green lens. He directs the environmental law program at the University of Maryland and he joins us from the NPR studios in Washington. Mr Percival, welcome to Living on Earth.

PERCIVAL: It’s nice to be here.

YOUNG: Now, environmental groups are focusing on an opinion that Judge Roberts wrote in an Endangered Species case. And it’s very interesting language that Judge Roberts uses in this opinion. The case has to do with this Arroyo Toad in California, which he calls “a hapless toad, that, for reasons of its own, lives its entire life in California.” What is it about this case that’s drawing their attention?

PERCIVAL: Well, Judge Roberts raised the question of whether or not the federal government had the constitutional authority to protect species that are so endangered that they exist only in one state and don’t ever cross state lines.

YOUNG: What’s special about the species only being within the boundaries of one state?

PERCIVAL: Well, the question is whether or not Congress has the power under the commerce clause to regulate purely intrastate activities. And most courts have found that because the protection of biodiversity has significant benefits for the economy, that Congress can justify that regulation under its authority to regulate interstate commerce even if a particular instance of that regulation might apply solely within state boundaries.

YOUNG: So, this is about the commerce clause of the Constitution, which, at first glance, you would not think, or I as a layperson would not think, has much of anything to do with endangered species, but it’s kind of the bedrock of that law, right?

PERCIVAL: It’s really the foundation for most of the federal regulatory infrastructure to protect the environment, to protect consumers, and to protect civil rights.

YOUNG: Do you have a guess as to what Judge Roberts thinks on this? He didn’t tip his hand in that opinion, but what do you think he thinks?

PERCIVAL: Well, you really can’t tell for certain. He did clerk for Justice Rehnquist, who has, for several decades, had an agenda to try to set constitutional limits on federal power. So this issue is something that probably has been on Justice, Judge Roberts’ mind for quite some time because it was raised as early as 1981 by his old boss Justice Rehnquist, now Chief Justice Rehnquist.

YOUNG: The other issue that we’ve heard environmentalists are very concerned about has to do with access to the courts. What is the issue there?

PERCIVAL: The question is really to what extent will citizens be permitted to go to court to help ensure that the environmental laws are implemented and enforced.

YOUNG: And why is this of special importance for environmentalists?

PERCIVAL: Because the history of environmental law demonstrates that in virtually every instance, it required citizen lawsuits to get agencies to carry out their statutory responsibilities to implement the environmental laws.

YOUNG: So, these are cases where the environmental agency in question is either unable or unwilling to apply the law, a citizen can say, hey, let’s do this.

PERCIVAL: Yes, or if the agency has done something that the environmental groups believe is illegal under the law, they can sue that agency.

YOUNG: Can you give me an example of where that’s been particularly important?

PERCIVAL: Well, one example that is particularly relevant to Judge Roberts’ nomination is a case that arose where the question was whether or not federal agencies could fund activities abroad that would wipe out the last remaining species of an endangered species. Justice Scalia in that case said that even if that was illegal, an improper interpretation of the statute, citizens could not go to court to challenge it unless they could demonstrate that they actually had a plane ticket to visit specific endangered species in Sri Lanka or Egypt. Judge Roberts subsequently wrote a law review article where he defended this decision against harsh criticism.

Now one thing that’s particularly important about this is, Justice O’Connor, who Judge Roberts would be replacing, had dissented in that case and had argued in an opinion that she joined, that what Justice Scalia had done was really a quote, “slash and burn expedition through the law of environmental standing.” So it seems clear that Judge Roberts would take a substantially narrower view of the ability of citizens to go to court to enforce the laws than Justice O’Connor took.

YOUNG: Well, this seems to me like a pretty big deal. A, you have this very important issue, of particular importance to environmentalists and environmental groups, and B, you have this fellow stepping into this seat that traditionally has been the swing on this kind of decision. Is this something that environmental groups should be worried about when they look at Judge Roberts and his record?

PERCIVAL: Well, it’s something that it would be very important to hear Judge Roberts address during his confirmation hearings. The question is, will he be a justice more in the mold of Justice Scalia and Thomas, who have been trying very hard to cut back on the ability of citizens to enforce the environmental laws, or will he be more like a Justice O’Connor, who has been much more moderate and understands the importance of citizens having access to the courts.

YOUNG: Robert Percival directs the environmental law program at the University of Maryland. Thanks for joining me today.

PERCIVAL: Thanks, it’s been a pleasure to be here.

Related links:
- The Center for Investigative Reporting project, information on Judge Roberts
- Roberts’s "hapless toad" opinion comes in his dissent in the endangered species case Rancho Viejo v. Norton.

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The Hapless Toad

(Photo: © Chris Brown, USGS)

YOUNG: As we’ve heard, a little toad has been getting a lot of attention with John Roberts’ nomination to the high court. The “hapless” toad Roberts wrote about in an opinion is the Arroyo toad of southern California. It’s not the first or last time the toad will land in court. Reporter Ilsa Setziol from member station KPCC in Los Angeles reports that a series of legal battles will determine just what will be done to protect this fragile amphibian.


SETZIOL: As the sun sets in southern California’s Angeles National Forest, Little Rock Creek grows dark in the shadows of a steep canyon. An amber light catches the creamy blossoms of tall yucca plants and makes them glow like candles.


SETZIOL: Biologist Ruben Ramirez crosses the creek.

RAMIREZ: In southern California generally you’re going to have two toads you’re going to see most often. The common Western toad. And then the Arroyo toad.

SETZIOL: Arroyo toads have lost at least 75 percent of their habitat to development, dams and water diversions. Little Rock Creek is one of the few places they survive. Ramirez heads upstream a couple of miles. As the light fades, the sound of tree frogs crescendos into a chorus.


SETZIOL: Ramirez takes out a flashlight to search for Arroyo toads. He spots them by the way their eyes shine in the light. Before long he picks up a two-inch toad about the color and texture of an oatmeal-raisin cookie, with tiny toes and big, liquid eyes.

RAMIREZ: Just a beautiful guy, isn’t he?


SETZIOL: Arroyo toads spend their days buried in moist sand. Only at night do the adults become active.


RAMIREZ: What he’s doing right now is a release call, because I’m compressing him a little bit on each side as though I’m trying to amplex him for breeding. And he’s a male and he’s basically saying, ‘get off me, I’m a male not a female’. It’s a release call.


SETZIOL: Amplexus is the technical term for toad nooky.

RAMIREZ: So, he’ll go down tonight and do some soaking. He’ll definitely forage tonight, looking for some ants. And I wouldn’t be surprised that he would find a nice spot and let off some advertisement calls tonight, just trying to get some female’s interest.


SETZIOL: Ramirez says when the creek dries up, the toads will burrow deep into the ground, and slip into a summer version of hibernation called “estivation.” They’ll emerge again when it rains.


SETZIOL: Forty miles west, in the Los Padres National Forest, biologist Nancy Sandburg dips a small green net into Piru Creek.


SETZIOL: She looks for Arroyo Toad tadpoles in a stretch of the creek where toads used to live. They’ve disappeared because the state releases unnaturally high amounts of water in the summer from an upstream dam. California’s Water Resource Agency is proposing to fix the problem. Sandburg says it’s one of the few hopeful signs in an otherwise bleak future for the toads.


SANDBURG: As I see it, no recovery efforts have been attempted yet. We’re still trying to prevent loss of existing habitat.

SETZIOL: It took a lawsuit from an environmental group to force the government to establish critical habitat for the toad in the first place. But another lawsuit changed that dramatically. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services recently cut back the amount of land designated as critical habitat for the toad: from more than 180,000 acres four years ago, down to fewer than 12,000 acres.

The agency did so in response to a lawsuit from southern California homebuilders who said Fish and Wildlife had underestimated the economic impact. A federal court sided with the building industry. Andy Henderson, legal counsel for the Building Industry Association of southern California, says the reduction in critical habitat will benefit regional planning efforts.

HENDERSON: If critical habitat is designated too broadly you can wind up with a situation where landowners would have no incentive to participate in regional planning of the type that would set aside habitat to benefit not just one species, but many.

SETZIOL: The revised habitat designation left out large swaths of southern California that are slated for development, although some areas may get protection under regional preservation plans. Sandburg takes issue with the federal government’s revised economic analysis.

SANDBURG: As far as I’m concerned, it was a sort of economic voodoo where economists, they calculate the goods and services that they obtain from an area, but they forget to, they don’t include the inherent value of the area itself.

SETZIOL: Fish and Wildlife won’t talk about the issue. They’re on notice that another lawsuit is coming from environmental groups. The Service generally downplays the importance of critical habitat designations, saying most of the protection for an imperiled species comes through other means.


SETZIOL: With night settled in the Angeles National Forest, Arroyo toads advertise for mates. The males let out a soft buzzing trill.

(Photo: © Chris Brown, USGS)


SETZIOL: Even with changes in the habitat designation, biologist Ruben Ramirez says his experience with the Arroyo toads gives him hope that they’ll survive the rapid urbanization of southern California.

RAMIREZ: What fascinates me is because I’ve been studying them for so long and every year they continue to prove me wrong in what I think they’re capable of. I find them moving up slopes where I didn’t think they could move. At least it gives me hope that with a little proper management we can help them rebound. And they’re just a beautiful animal. [LAUGHS]


SETZIOL: For Living On Earth, I’m Ilsa Setziol in Los Angeles.


Related links:
- About the Arroyo Toad
- Fish & Wildlife Designation on Arroyo Toad

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[MUSIC: Magnetic Fields “Old Orchard Beach” from ‘The Wayward Bus’ (1998)]

Return of the Wolf

YOUNG: When Yellowstone National Park was first established in the late 19th century, it was home to the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf. But predator control in the park in the early 1900s meant wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned.
For seven decades the wolves were nowhere to be found in Yellowstone. An increase in scientific research and a change in public sentiment led to a plan to re-colonize Yellowstone with wolves. Author Rick Bass says ten years after the wolves were reintroduced, the park has a new and unexpected vitality.

BASS: There is color in the land again. Or perhaps the color was always there, like a pigment in the soil that was simply rendered imperceptible for awhile. How can black and silver wolves combine, like pigment, to unleash a new surge of yellow warblers and brilliant tanagers back into a landscape long absent such colors? How can the crimson blood of elk in the snow release a bluebird?

Upon the wolves' return, so sudden was the transformation that it seemed a marvel that the landscape – brittle and fractured as it had become in the absence of even that one species – had been able to hold together as well as it had for those seventy or so years. In the ten years since the wolves have been back, they have reshaped huge sections of an awkwardly leaning ecosystem, one which in many places we did not even recognize as leaning.

By pruning wildly excessive elk numbers, the Yellowstone wolves kept the elk herds on the move, allowing overgrazed areas to recover. The elk were no longer encamping in any one spot like feedlot animals, and the restored riverbanks served as nesting and feeding habitat for songbirds of different hues. Blink, and a howl equals the color yellow.

Now, the elk are not living as long. Their trophic capacity is being redistributed with greater alacrity, greater vitality, throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem. There is greater turnover in the mortality game upon which wild nature, and what we think of as a healthier nature, relies so powerfully.

Where previously the overcrowded and static elk and deer herds conspired to keep stands of aspen from regenerating, browsing with sharp teeth the young aspen suckers as soon as they emerged, the beautiful groves of aspen, with snow-white bark and quivering gold leaves in the fall, are now prospering. Flaring back up on the landscape like so many tens of thousands of autumn-lit candles. Entire mountain ranges are being painted anew.

The return of the aspen and other deciduous saplings to the hoof-cut, denuded riverbanks once abused by too many elk has been good for more than songbirds and artists. Beavers, also, have prospered, able now to access their requisite building and feeding materials without needing to venture so far into dangerous territory. This has resulted in the return of more backwater ponds and pools and eddies. In these shallow areas of submersion young cottonwoods prosper, more flame color, and more beaver habitat.

We can spend centuries trying to chase down and quantify relationships in the natural world, but in a wild and healthy landscape there will always be vast quantities of unknown relationships, and immeasurable consequences. It is in our last few big wild landscapes, I think, where the potential, the opportunity, for discovery remains strongest, and might be most easily or readily encountered. The wolves have returned home, bringing great color and breathing a life-force that some, in an upside-down world, view as destructive. They have become our instructors and we are watching them with fascination, with our senses as well as our returning knowledge – like hunters ourselves, re-engaged and keenly alert.

YOUNG: Rick Bass lives in the Yaak Valley of Montana. A longer version of this essay appears in the July/August issue of Orion magazine.

Related link:
Orion essay by Rick Bass

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[MUSIC: American Analog Set “We’re Computers Now…” from ‘Know By Heart’ (2004)]

Emerging Science Note/Jockey Robotics

YOUNG: Just ahead: Mexico City has a new high speed bus system. But will anyone get on board? First, this Note on Emerging Science from Max Thelander.


THELANDER: Think of a fast-moving animal, and camels probably aren’t at the top of your list. But camel racing is a long-standing and culturally important tradition among Bedouin Arabs. For hundreds of years, children as young as four have been favored as jockeys for their light weight. But last year, the United Arab Emirates’ Camel Racing Association banned the use of jockeys under 18, on the heels of allegations that the children were being kidnapped, kept in prison-like conditions, and deliberately underfed.

Confronted with this human rights fiasco, some camel racing enthusiasts got innovative – they asked a Swiss company to develop a replacement. The result is a robot that weighs around 30 pounds and looks like a jockey-sized action figure, complete with helmet and wrap-around glasses. Mounted on the back of a camel, the robot’s mechanical arms are capable of pulling reigns and using a whip. The arms, in turn, are controlled by humans using handheld remotes, chasing the camels in SUVs.

The inaugural test race was attended by hundreds of cheering fans, as well as the UAE minister for presidential affairs, who proclaimed it a tremendous success and said it marked “a new development in this indispensable sport.” Thousands of the robots, selling for about $2000 each, are already on order. As for the children, some 250 of them have been returned to their homes. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Max Thelander.

YOUNG: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Kinky “Great Spot” from ‘Kinky’ (2004)]

Listener Letters

YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young and coming up: Mad Maxing mileage, hybrid-style. But first:


YOUNG: Time now for your comments.


YOUNG: In our interview with Kellyn Betts about health problems related to office cubicles, she spoke about chemicals used to make them in the 1980s that have been known to cause “sick building syndrome.” Brian Miller is a builder who tunes in our program in Boulder, Colorado.

He notes that these same chemicals are found in the average household. Many kitchen cabinets are made from the same material as the cubicles, he writes, “and the plywood and strand board found in our walls and floors is also permeated with many of the same chemicals, as are the carpets, wood finishes, paints, and plastic cups. Mr. Miller says he’s “appalled at the disregard for the health of tradesmen and homeowners shown by the manufacturers and vendors of such products.”

Reporter Guy Hand’s story “Mad About Magpies” – about the birds folks love to hate—prompted June Peka to send us a note. She hears our show in Christchurch, New Zealand, and says she is “mad about magpies!” and “loves them passionately.”
Ms. Peka admits she’s an oddity in her homeland where magpies are reviled, trapped and killed.

David Daitch, also of Boulder, Colorado, also professed a great affection for the bird. “What I find interesting,” Mr. Daitch writes, “is how so many people seem to hate the animals that act most like themselves. Could they not see the irony in hating a bird that seemed to be quote “driving out other birds.”

We recently aired a special on Nobel peace prize winner Wangari Maathai.
The Kenyan scientist initiated a grassroots movement to reforest the landscape of her East African nation.

Cathe Fish listens to Living on Earth in Chico, California. She writes, “The news nowadays is so depressing. We need more stories of how grassroots movements are creating change. I loved this story. It warmed my heart.”

Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 800-218-9988. Our write us at: 20 Holland Street, Suite 408, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144. Our email address is comments@loe.org. That’s comments@loe.org.


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Mexico Transit

YOUNG: Mexico City has a new bus system. It’s called the Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, modeled on similar transportation systems in cities ranging from Curitiba, Brazil to Cleveland, Ohio. It has its own dedicated lanes on main city streets, so the buses don’t have to compete with cars and trucks. Jana Schroeder reports on how the new system is faring and how it might help a city with some of the world’s worst traffic and smog.


SCHROEDER: The new metro-bus corridor runs in both directions on the longest avenue crossing Mexico City. The 12 and a half mile stretch on Insurgentes Avenue has 36 boarding stations. On a rainy Friday afternoon, the buses stopping at this station are packed.

RAMIREZ: Porque ya no hubo cupo…(fades under)

SCHROEDER: Santiago Ramírez tries to board a bus and gives up to wait for another. It's already full, he says. You have to push your way on, even though we’re at the beginning of the north-bound lane.


SCHROEDER: A few minutes later, another bus arrives. I decide to climb on board, and stand shoulder to shoulder with Alfonso Perez. I ask him what he thinks about the city’s new metro-bus system.

PEREZ: Fue bueno…Menos micros que contamina…(fades under)

SCHROEDER: It’s a good idea, says Perez, and should reduce air pollution. But he says the new system was launched before it was ready.

PEREZ: Lo metieron a fuerzas. Pudieron haberse esperado… (fades under)

SCHROEDER: When asked what the hurry is all about, he said Mexico City Mayor Andres Lopez Obrador is about to leave his post, and wants to inaugurate the new metro-bus as his last legacy. This complaint about the city mayor—who’s resigning to run for president in next year’s elections—is the criticism most heard about the BRT--but not the only one.

Manuel Guerra is the director of the Autonomous Institute for Ecological Research. He says the metro-bus system can be very quick and efficient, and believes that might motivate car owners to leave their vehicles behind. But he says Insurgentes Avenue was a poor choice of location for the bus corridor.

GUERRA: So it was decided to be built on the main avenue in Mexico City which is an avenue with a great tradition with a lot of trees. It is one of the few big avenues in Mexico City that had lots of trees on the sidewalks and in the middle of the street.

SCHROEDER: To make room for the metro-bus, 1,000 trees were removed—an action protested by ecologists and residents. The city has promised it will plant six new trees around the city for each one cut down.

GUERRA: There were other possibilities where not so many trees had to be felled, and it had a much more logic of transportation efficiency, because other alternatives would have linked the metro-bus with the subway lines and with other lines of surface buses.

SCHROEDER: While the new metro-bus has some links to the subway, Manuel Guerra insists that Revolución Avenue, running parallel a few blocks over, would have been the better choice. He says environmentalists and urban planners weren’t consulted on the metro-bus plan.

GUERRA: We had no access to the project. We were not invited to any discussions about the viability about the number of passengers, the number of buses and so on. It was all decided in a closed circle, inside city hall.

SCHROEDER: Still, many in Mexico are happy about the city’s attempt to replace old, polluting, gas-powered small buses, with the new large, efficient diesel metro-buses. Although the city has an extensive subway system, with over four million users daily, most of the city’s public transportation is provided by privately-owned micro-buses, sun by powerful groups. According to the city’s Environment Minister Claudia Scheinbaum, micro-buses cause 20 percent of the harmful emissions polluting city air.

SCHEINBAUM: It took us three years to negotiate the metro-bus from the owners of the old buses to the new system. You can see in Insurgentes, you don’t see any old buses circulating.

SCHROEDER: Those old buses were part of a poorly regulated system of micro-bus routes that crisscross the entire city. They only hold about 25 passengers – compared with the new buses’ 160-person capacity. What microbus drivers earn depends on how many passengers they have, so they compete among themselves, driving dangerously and stopping anywhere to pick up a passenger, often creating traffic congestion.

SCHEINBAUM: We have substituted 350 buses for 80 buses, and the 350 buses used to be very old buses, so you have reduction in both in local pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. One hundred fifty of them are going to be destroyed.

SCHROEDER: While destroying old microbuses may seem like an extreme measure, the city wants to show that it’s actually getting them off the streets, and that they won’t just show up in another part of the city, where they’ll continue to clog traffic and pollute the air.


SCHROEDER: But that’s exactly what some say is already happening.

GUTIERREZ: Yo creo que vale la pena, sí va a reducir el trafico. El problema es que aquí en Insurgentes lo reduce…(fades under)

SCHROEDER: Miriam Gutierrez waits in line to board the new metro-bus. She’s noticed less traffic on Insurgentes, but says some of the micro-buses have ended up a few blocks over, on Revolución Avenue, causing more congestion there.

So, while some like the new system, others fear that it’s a small fix for Mexico City’s traffic and pollution woes. Although the city plans to add more metro-bus corridors, some environmentalists say what they city really needs is a comprehensive public transportation plan with a long-term vision. For Living on Earth, I’m Jana Schroeder in Mexico City.


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Prius MPG

YOUNG: When hybrid cars first hit showroom floors, the main selling point was fuel efficiency, with engines powered by gas and electricity, autos like the Toyota Prius got 50 to 70 miles on a single gallon of gas.

But hybrids are changing. A car like the new Honda Accord Hybrid uses an electric motor to boost its gasoline engines, giving them more horsepower than the same model without the hybrid. Cambridge, Massachusetts salesman James Bulger says these hybrids have traded in much of their potential fuel economy.

BULGER: It’s completely a different concept than what the first cars that were hybrid technology came out to do.

YOUNG: But these new hybrids don’t sit well with a group of hybrid owners who are still driven by fuel efficiency. It’s almost become an obsession for some. These mileage maniacs swap fuel economy tips on the Internet. They tweak their driving techniques to squeeze more and more miles from each tank of gas.

Dave Bassage of Walton, West Virginia, is one of those mad about mileage types and he joins us now from behind the wheel of his Toyota Prius. Dave, where are you heading and what kind of mileage are you getting right now?

BASSAGE: Well, we’re on McCorkle Avenue, which is near Charleston, West Virginia, headed for a little town called St. Albans. We’ve been going about six miles so far, and right now we’re getting 81.8 miles per gallon.

YOUNG: That’s pretty impressive, but I’m guessing you want to do even better. So how are you going to improve on that through how you drive?

BASSAGE: What we’ll be doing is trying to minimize our energy flow to and from the battery of the hybrid, and to coast at every possible chance – or actually a form of coasting that we call gliding. The way the hybrid car works, or at least the way the Prius works, is that whenever you take your foot off the gas the electric motors turn into generators and put electricity back into the battery. If you slightly depress your foot on the accelerator while you’re doing that, you disengage those electric motors so that you’re, essentially, just freewheeling.

YOUNG: And so gentle acceleration, right? Is that the deal?

BASSAGE: Yeah, we’ve been actually experimenting with different techniques for accelerating. There was a while when we thought that brisk was the way to go, but the more we tested the more we found that a pretty mild acceleration level is best. The car will show you both its instantaneous and cumulative fuel economy figures, and so, essentially, we try to accelerate in a way that will maximize those instantaneous numbers – which means keep that number just as high as you can.

YOUNG: What’s your personal best? What’s the most mileage you’ve had out of one tank of gas?

BASSAGE: My best tank so far was 71 miles per gallon, which was my last tank. It seems like I’m getting better or the car’s getting better at all times.

YOUNG: Now, in the interest of full disclosure I should probably say that Dave and I, we’ve known each other for a while. And Dave, as I recall, you didn’t always drive the way you’re describing here for us today. You used to be a pretty fast driver.

BASSAGE: Yeah Jeff, you remember correctly. People used to refer to it as “Dave Warp Speed.” I pretty routinely exceeded the speed limit, and my main goal was to just see how fast I could get wherever I wanted to go. But, you know, it’s amazing – once you get all this instrumentation in front of you, and you get that instant feedback that shows you just how well you’re doing, it can change you.

YOUNG: Another thing I recall is you have a bit of a competitive streak and, as I understand it, you’ve found a way to make this maxing out of your mileage, this has become a contest for you. What do you have planned along those lines?

BASSAGE: Well, what we’ll be doing in a couple weeks is that four of us will be driving one Prius, taking turns behind the wheel, nonstop. We’ll start at 6 o’clock on a Friday on a full tank of gas and drive until we run out. And our goal is just to see how far we can possibly get on a single tank of gas.

YOUNG: Hmm. And this is pretty organized – you’ve got a course laid out and all of this stuff?

BASSAGE: Yeah. One of the other drivers has discovered a stretch of road where he’s been able to consistently score 100 mile-per-gallon legs. He just suggested what would it be possible if we could only get a few other drivers to help, and a few of stepped up. So we’re coming from all points of the compass to have fun going nowhere for a whole weekend in Pittsburgh.

YOUNG: (LAUGHS) You’ve basically turned driving like my grandma into a contest here, haven’t you?

BASSAGE: Yeah, isn’t that amazing?

YOUNG: How did this all come about? How did you hook up with all of these other Prius drivers anyway?

BASSAGE: Well when I first got interested in a hybrid vehicle and I started doing research online, I discovered there were a number of discussion forums where people compared notes about their cars. And that’s how I kind of hooked up with this guy.

You know, believe it or not, even though I’m considered a fanatic about my fuel economy, I’m probably the least fanatical of the four of us who’ll be driving. And actually have had the least success in terms of high miles per gallon numbers. The others have all done even better than my 70 mile per gallon tank.


BASSAGE: Pardon me for a second, I’m dealing with a traffic situation here.

YOUNG: Sure, I think that takes priority.

BASSAGE: Yeah, I caught up to somebody actually going slower – a piece of earth-moving equipment.


YOUNG: You don’t really expect everybody else out on the road to drive the way that you’re driving, with this almost hyper attention to detail about saving energy with every push on the gas pedal, do you?

BASSAGE: No, not at all. Certainly, you know, those of us who drive like this, we put a lot more energy into our driving than most people will do. But there are aspects of what we do that others may choose to take on. It could be as simple as just making sure you’ve got good tire pressure in your tires. It could be slowing down by five miles per hour or ten miles per hour, and recognizing that that could save you almost that many miles per gallon. If you think of it as what’s going into your pocketbook then maybe that gives a little more incentive to drive a little slower.

YOUNG: Passed a gas station yet?

BASSAGE: Passing one right now.

YOUNG: Do you notice, what’s a gallon of gas going to cost you there in Charleston?

BASSAGE: You know, I don’t even pay as much attention to that as I used to. I believe we’re up just shy of $2.30.

YOUNG: I think that’s a very telling comment, that the guy doesn’t even know how much a gallon of gas is. Everyone else, I’m guessing, is pretty keenly aware of that.

BASSAGE: Yeah, they probably are. I have done the math and figured out it cost me just about three cents a mile to drive this car in gas.


BASSAGE: Mostly I’ve noted that for the first time in my life I find myself stopping at gas stations for something besides gas. I need to replenish me more often than I need to replenish the car.

YOUNG: When he’s not driving his Toyota Prius around, Dave Bassage works for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Thanks for talking with us today, Dave.

BASSAGE: Thank you, Jeff.

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[MUSIC: Caribou “The Bacon Bunch” from ‘The Milk Of Human Kindness’ (2005)]

YOUNG: On the next Living on Earth: he picked cotton at age four, wrestled professionally in his 20s, made a small fortune fixing cars and trucks and flew airplanes for the U.S. Mail. And when he left this world, he left behind a brand new tomato that people still grow and eat today. Meet Radiator Charlie.

CHARLIE: Well, I always had a mind to do anything that nobody else couldn’t do. I never been to school a day in my life but, heh heh, anything I wanted to do, I done it.

YOUNG: The story of Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato, next time on Living on Earth.


YOUNG: We leave you this week with the sounds that cars and trucks - hybrid or not - make as they cross the Rodenkirchener Bridge in Cologne, Germany.


YOUNG: With a few well-placed microphones and some studio savvy, Michael Rüsenberg created this sonic symphony.

[EARTHEAR: “Rodenkirchner Bridge” from ‘Earth Ear’ recorded by Michael Rusenberg (EarthEar - 2001)]


YOUNG: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Chris Ballman, Steve Gregory, and Ingrid Lobet - with help from Jennie Cecil-Moore, Kelley Cronin and Michelle Kweder. Our interns are Max Thelander and Sarah Williams.

Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Steve Curwood is the executive producer of Living on Earth. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.

You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. I’m Jeff Young. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt, smoothies and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to
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