UNBEARABLE: U.S. grizzly bear populations this year have reached their highest levels in decades, but some experts say the comeback could be bad news for bears — as well as their human neighbors. At least 603 grizzlies now roam the greater Yellowstone region of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, according to a recent scientific census, more than three times the number in 1975, when hunting was outlawed and grizzlies were added to the endangered species list. It's a big conservation victory for a big predator, but it coincides with another, increasingly incompatible trend: The area's human population has grown, too, by about 40 percent since the late '70s. This has led to rising rates of bear-human interactions out West, and relations became especially tense in 2010, with as many as 62 Yellowstone-area grizzlies either killed or removed due to conflicts with people — including two rare cases of fatal bear attacks. The problem may be partly tied to climate change, the Los Angeles Times reports, since milder winters have helped bark beetles obliterate white-bark pine, whose nuts are an important food source for grizzlies, and slight seasonal shifts in other plants have forced the animals to adapt their pre-hibernation habits. One effect of this has been that grizzlies are focusing more on meat than on nuts, berries and other plant-based foods, putting them in direct competition with another powerful meat lover: people. "A grizzly is a top-level carnivore; at times he will act like one," bear expert Chuck Neal tells the Times. "People are a readily available source of high-quality protein. We eat too much and exercise too little. We're like a hot dog on two legs." The problem isn't just grizzlies, either — black bears and brown bears from Canada to New Mexico have been causing more trouble lately, the Times reports, stealing dog food, raiding campgrounds, and outcompeting human hunters for deer and elk; bears in Russia have even been caught digging up corpses in graveyards. It's that kind of resourcefulness that may help endangered bears survive, and for humans to reach a truce with booming bear populations, Neal warns we'll just have to start giving them more space. "In order to adapt to other food sources, they must be able to range far afield," he says. "It will continue to be this way until we allow the bears to expand their range. Right now, we're maintaining an open zoo." (Sources: High Country NewsLos Angeles Times, Guardian, Center for the Rocky Mountain West)

CORAL DILEMMA: Casualty reports from the 2010 Gulf oil spill continue trickling in, and the latest news from U.S. scientists isn't pretty: Deep-sea corals near BP's infamous Macondo oil well are dead and dying (pictured), presenting "a smoking gun" that the spill has harmed wildlife, researchers say. The report, funded by the U.S. government and led by biologists at Pennsylvania State University, raises new doubts about previous and relatively upbeat environmental assessments. "The compelling evidence that we collected constitutes a smoking gun," Penn State biologist and study leader Charles Fisher said in a statement. "The circumstantial evidence is extremely strong and compelling because we have never seen anything like this — and we have seen a lot." Using a robot to survey an area 4,600 feet deep and seven miles from the Macondo wellhead, the scientists discovered hard coral producing mucus and turning brown, as well as soft coral colonies with large bare sections. It's a stark difference from other, healthy corals elsewhere in the Gulf, and the area's proximity to the oil spill suggests the disaster played a leading role in killing the reefs, the researchers say. "The visual data for recent and ongoing death are crystal clear and consistent over at least 30 colonies; the site is close to the Deepwater Horizon, the research site is at the right depth and direction to have been impacted by a deep-water plume, based on NOAA models and empirical data, and the impact was detected only a few months after the spill was contained," Fisher says. The survey area was relatively tiny — just 130 feet by 50 feet — and scientists have identified some 25 additional locations around the well where they expect to find similar damage, with further expeditions scheduled for next month. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco called the findings significant, and vowed to continue scouring the Gulf for hidden damage from the spill. "Given the toxic nature of oil and the unprecedented amount of oil spilled, it would be surprising if we did not find damage," she said in a statement last week. "This is precisely why we continue to actively monitor and evaluate the impact of the spill in the Gulf." (Sources: AOL News, New York Times, MSNBC)

POWER STRUGGLE: U.S. politicians are keenly aware that Americans are pinching pennies, and with the GOP now riding a wave of populist frugality into Congress, any policies that might cost consumers more money in the short term are increasingly seen as politically stupid. And as the New York Times reports, that could spell trouble for one industry that was just getting off the ground when the recession hit: renewable power. Solar panels and wind turbines are already struggling to maintain their recent gains in challenging fossil fuels since loans have become scarce, and regulators in some states are now making the job even more difficult, arguing that consumers can't afford even slightly higher energy bills. "The ratepayers of Virginia must be protected from costs for renewable energy that are unreasonably high," state regulators said in one recent case, in which they rejected a deal that would have let a wind farm sell power to a local utility. The deal was expected to increase the typical residential customer's monthly power bill by 0.2 percent, a seemingly small amount that has nonetheless also killed or sidelined similar deals in states such as Floirda, Idaho and Kentucky. According to the American Wind Energy Association, year-to-date installations of new wind power have fallen 72 percent from 2009, spurring a trend that wind-power advocates call short-sighted. "They have to look for the rate payers' long-term interest," says Michael Polsky, owner of the company whose wind farm was denied the utility deal in Virginia, "not just the bills this year." (Source: New York Times)

GRASS PAINS: The Chesapeake Bay is America's largest estuary, and as the Washington Post reports today, it's also turning into the country's largest laboratory for fighting a problem in waterways nationwide: nutrient runoff. The Obama administration is trying to salvage a sputtering, 27-year regional cleanup effort that has cost billions of dollars but produced few positive results, and has recently begun flexing its anti-pollution muscle via the EPA. The agency warned several states this fall for not doing enough to curb pollution flowing toward the Chesapeake, for example, threatening unprecedented punishments such as mandatory upgrades to sewage-treatment plants or limitations on new building and development. The impetus for all this is nitrogen and phosphorus, two vital nutrients for plant growth that can become deadly in excessive amounts. They're widely released from sewage spills, livestock operations and industrial facilities, but the Chesapeake's situation — as well as that of estuaries across the country — is increasingly being blamed on chemical fertilizers, particularly those used to maintain artificially luscious lawns of grass. Residential yards throughout much of the Mid-Atlantic contribute small amounts of fertilizers that are washed away by rain, eventually accumulating in the Chesapeake and elsewhere, feeding large algae blooms that use up dissolved oxygen in the water and create "dead zones" devoid of most sea life. To remedy this, the EPA is putting pressure on Chesapeake-area states to restrict their residents' fertilizer use, an aggressive strategy that experts say offers a test case for efforts to control dead zones nationwide. "You win this thing," says one ecology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, "you're winning it for the country." (Source: Washington Post

Russell McLendon

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Photo (American grizzly bear roaring): ZUMA Press

Photo (dying Gulf coral): Lophelia II 2010, NOAA, OER and BOEMRE/AP

Photo (wind farm): U.S. State Department

Photo (grass): Sanctuary/Jupiter Images

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Mon. 11/8/2010
Grizzlies becoming unbearable, oil kills Gulf coral, GOP sparks power struggle, and more.