Week 67: Zinke Declares Open Season on Yellowstone’s Grizzlies

Also, top EPA staffers jump ship, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry is confused about how research works.

May 04, 2018

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

No Picnic for Yogi Bear

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is removing Endangered Species Act protection for grizzly bears living in and around Yellowstone National Park this week. The announcement affirmed the agency’s June 2017 decision to split the grizzly population into segments and leave the peri–Yellowstone bears vulnerable to hunting and other threats.

The move is flawed on its face—if grizzlies are threatened in one part of the West, they should be considered threatened in all parts of it. But that’s not all. There are, at most, 1,000 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone, and possibly as few as 600. That’s not a lot of bears. And, since they’re cut off from the other groups of grizzlies, they lack genetic diversity and are vulnerable to disease or other potential ailments. Most studies conclude that Yellowstone would need at least twice its current grizzly population to be confident in the group’s long-term viability.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, a unit of the U.S. Department of the Interior, believes it can solve this problem by trucking in some grizzlies from other regions to vary the genetic mix. But the very fact that the agency is considering such emergency measures only proves that the Yellowstone grizzlies are still in danger. If the population were healthy and self-sustaining, there would be no need to contemplate sending in saviors from the hinterlands.

Some advocates for the delisting argue that the bears are popping up in new areas, a development they take as a sign of population expansion and health. True, the population is recovering, but there’s another potential explanation for the sightings: Climate change is already affecting the grizzlies’ food sources and denning times. The bears may be drifting in response—a theory the Interior Department dismisses just like Secretary Ryan Zinke dismisses the existence of climate change.

Of course, there is also a strong push by Western hunting interests who want to declare open season on the vulnerable grizzlies. It’s not time yet. Hold your fire, gentleman.

Weekly Pruitt Scandal Roundup

The steady stream of Scott Pruitt scandal stories continues. After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator blamed many of his illegal and unethical actions on his subordinates in last week’s congressional hearings, three of his top aides abruptly left the agency. Go figure.

Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, Pruitt’s chief of security, took the bullet for his boss this week. He has become the scapegoat for Pruitt’s ludicrous overspending on travel. It’s not clear whether he jumped or was pushed into the line of fire, but it stands to reason that Pruitt might have wanted to sacrifice Perrotta to bolster the argument that it was Pruitt’s staff, not Pruitt himself, that decided he had to fly first class (but only when the government was paying for it).

Albert “Kell” Kelly also left the agency this week. (Apparently all senior EPA staffers have a nickname. Pruitt’s, incidentally, is “the possum.”) A Pruitt friend and banker who was earlier forced out of his industry in disgrace, Kelly apparently has now left the EPA in disgrace as well. He was supposed to be leading the agency’s Superfund program, but his only qualifications for the job were his financial ties to Pruitt.

On Thursday, Liz Bowman, Pruitt’s top spokesperson, also announced she would be fleeing Pruitt’s sinking ship. Bowman came to the EPA from a lobbying group for the chemical industry, and she will now join the staff of Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, one of the most notorious climate change deniers on Capitol Hill who wants to abolish the EPA.

In other scandal news, remember that townhouse that Pruitt rented at below-market rates from a lobbyist’s wife? Pruitt claimed that none of the lobbyist’s clients had business before the EPA, but the New York Times reported this week that Pruitt’s assurances were a lie. In fact, Steven Hart, the lobbyist in question, tried to get people appointed to EPA science advisory positions on behalf of his clients. Whoops!

What else…Remember that trip to Morocco that Pruitt took in December, the one that cost more than $100,000 and served no real purpose? This week the Washington Post reported that one of the trip’s planners, Pruitt friend and lobbyist Richard Smotkin, was subsequently awarded a $40,000-per-month contract to promote the kingdom of Morocco’s cultural and economic interests. The deal was finalized in April, but was made retroactive to January 1, shortly after Pruitt’s trip to Morocco. What a coincidence.

Finally (for now), Politico reports that Pruitt explored opening an EPA office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, just for his personal convenience. Apparently there is already an office there, established in 2012 and accommodating two staffers who have to work remotely, but, according to an EPA spokesperson, “this location is not practical or usable for Administrator Pruitt’s business.” Which I guess means it doesn’t have a $43,000 soundproof booth?

Demand that Scott Pruitt be fired now

Widening the “Valley of Death”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee had a written Q&A with U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry back in February, and the news site E&E obtained the correspondence this week through a Freedom of Information Act request. In the exchange, Perry addressed Trump’s plan to kill the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (or ARPA-E). He made an interesting comment: “Applied research should be left to the private sector.”

This has become something of a mantra among Washington Republicans, but it’s completely misguided. There isn’t a clean line between basic research and applied research. In reality, new technologies progress gradually. The Energy Department measures this progression using the Technology Readiness Level, which spans from mere concepts (TRL 1) to full commercial scale technologies (TRL 9). The space between TRL 5 and TRL 7 is known as the “valley of death,” the stage at which many ideas die. That doesn’t mean they were bad technologies. Often, they’re good ideas that needed a little more research support at a vulnerable developmental stage.

ARPA-E was funded in 2009 largely to address this problem—to bridge the valley of death for promising energy projects. And it worked. Ideas that were nurtured in the ARPA-E incubator have gone on to attract billions of dollars in private investment. To take just one example, an ARPA-E grantee has dramatically driven down the cost of solar panels and made manufacturing panels in the United States a more economic option.

To wave away these success stories based on an artificial distinction between basic and applied research is to put ideology ahead of reality.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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