The Mississippi River's devastating crest has finally moved through Memphis, leaving behind swaths of flooded homes and an estimated $320 million in damage. And now, as it heads into its home stretch before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico, the rampaging river is gearing up for a grand finale in the Mississippi Delta. The assault will play out over the next few weeks, CNN reports, with the crest expected to reach Vicksburg, Miss., this weekend, likely breaking the record set during the Great Flood of 1927. From there, it's forecast to arrive in Louisiana next week, where Gov. Bobby Jindal says 3 million acres could be inundated within days.

Louisiana is no stranger to high water, and officials there are already scrambling into action. Some 500 National Guard troops have been mobilized so far, according to Jindal, while 21 parishes have issued emergency declarations in anticipation of historic flooding. "I went through Katrina," New Orleans resident Lynn Magnuson tells CNN. "I would not wish flooding on anyone, and this city is the last place on Earth that needs any more high water." As U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., adds, the cumulative effects from multiple disasters in recent years have left her state vulnerable. "After hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike — as well as the oil spill — Louisiana can ill-afford another large-scale disaster," she says. "Billions of dollars in property is at stake, not to mention the threat to human life." Farther north in Vicksburg, people are already getting a taste of the river's wrath — brothers William and Milton Jefferson, for example, have resorted to catching fish in the street now that floodwaters have knocked out their power. "At least we can catch something fresh to eat, because we ain't got no icebox or electricity," Milton tells the AP, although his brother adds a playful warning about the cleanliness of flood fish: "If you eat a fish right now, you won't live to see the water go down."

To protect Louisiana, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened 28 gates Monday and 44 more Tuesday to the Bonnet Carre spillway, unleashing millions of gallons of water into Lake Ponchartrain. It may open another 38 gates Wednesday, according to Jefferson Parish President John Young, while Jindal says the Morganza Spillway may be opened as early as this weekend. That will flood about 3 million acres of the Atchafalaya River Basin, he says, including 18,000 acres used for agriculture. But while a decision on opening that spillway could be made anytime from Saturday to Tuesday, Jindal adds that residents in low-lying areas shouldn't wait to prepare. "There's no reason for folks to delay," he says.

(Sources: CNN, Associated Press, Baton Rouge Advocate, New Orleans Times-Picayune)


The U.S. Interior Department has negotiated a deal with environmentalists to work through a backlog of 251 endangered species petitions, the Washington Post reports, clearing the way for a dramatic change in how the Endangered Species Act is enforced. The backlog originated amid a barrage of lawsuits filed by environmental groups over the years, part of a so-called "bioblitz" strategy aimed at forcing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to more aggressively protect wildlife. The new agreement would let officials "focus efforts on the species most in need of protection, something we haven't been able to do in years," FWS assistant director for endangered species Gary Frazer tells the New York Times.

If the deal is approved by a federal judge, most of the 251 species would likely be proposed for threatened or endangered status, the AP reports, ranging from the greater sage grouse (pictured above) and the New England cottontail to 110 plants and 38 kinds of mollusks. Some of the species covered by the deal were initially proposed for protection shortly after the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, but have waited for decades on a list of "candidate species" the FWS couldn't afford to protect. The agreement would not only help the FWS clear out this backlog, says Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, but would also settle pending litigation between the government and environmental groups — potentially restoring the listing process back to its pre-bioblitz days, but with a new sense of efficient urgency. "This plan will enable the endangered species program to function as it was originally intended," Hayes tells the AP. "Priorities are being set by plaintiffs in courts, instead of by wildlife professionals."

While the FWS says it would likely protect most of the 251 species, the settlement also states that WildEarth Guardians — an environmental group that has filed many of the lawsuits — can petition the government to list no more than 10 additional species per year. "We and the government agree that the day has come to address the future of the endangered species candidates," Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, tells the AP. "This will be an important step toward protecting the rich biodiversity in the U.S. and stemming the extinction crisis."

(Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Post, New York Times, AP, Reuters)


While Tea Party governors from Wisconsin to Florida have made a big show of rejecting federal money for high-speed rail, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is proving to be something of a maverick, the Guardian reports. Snyder isn't lacking penny-pinching street cred — he recently refused to pave roads in rural areas, for example, suggesting gravel as a cheaper alternative — but unlike some of his more ideological Tea Party colleagues, he's accepting nearly $200 million in funding for high-speed rail. As Snyder explains, the economic benefits of a rail line linking Detroit to Chicago outweigh the upfront costs.

"Investment of this magnitude can spur economic development in our communities with rail stations, and provide access to a 21st century rail system that will help Michigan citizens compete in a global economy," Snyder said in a statement. "Reliable, fast train service is attractive to businesses that want to locate or expand near it. This investment in our rail system is critical to Michigan's recovery." Most of Michigan's funding will help develop a 135-mile railway between Dearborn and Kalamazoo, a big chunk of the federally designated high-speed corridor between Detroit and Chicago. When completed, the line is expected to shave 30 minutes off the travel time between the Motor City and the Windy City, the Dearborn Press & Guide reports, and will also create jobs in the economically challenged state. "This funding will help move Michigan and the nation forward by making high-speed rail a part of our economic infrastructure," says Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "Our economic competitors around the world have long enjoyed the benefits of high-speed rail service between their cities. They have demonstrated that high-speed service can create jobs and promote economic growth, and that it can provide a more energy-efficient alternative."

The project is part of the Obama administration's broader, 15-state plan to connect 80 percent of Americans to high-speed rail within 25 years, and Michigan is also benefitting from the $2.4 billion that Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently rejected (much of the rest will go toward improving rail service between Washington, D.C. and New York City, the Guardian reports). Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also refused to accept millions in high-speed rail funding for his state, as did Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But according to Snyder, such stubbornness raises the risk missing important economic opportunities. "I think it's a great illustration of the culture starting to move in our state in a positive way," Snyder tells the Press & Guide. "Because too often when you talk about opportunities like this, we might not avail ourselves of them or go after them like we did, and have the success we did, because too often we might be fighting with each other."

(Sources: Guardian, MLive, Dearborn Press & Guide)


Black bears are rarely dangerous to people, even though they're the most common bear species in North America: Only 63 people in the U.S. and Canada have been killed by one in the last 109 years, the New York Times reports. But as a new study in the Journal of Wildlife Management reveals, black bears can still be a threat — and not in the way many people expect.

Popular advice suggests that mother black bears are the most dangerous, namely when they feel their cubs are being threatened. But 88 percent of black-bear attacks involve a lone bear on the prowl, not an over-protective parent, and 92 percent of those predator bears are male, the study's authors report. "Mother bears, whenever they feel threatened or a person is too close, they act very aggressively," Stephen Herrero, the study's lead author, tells the Times. "They make noise, they swat the ground with their paws and they run at people. They want to make you think that they'll eat you alive, but they almost always stop." On the other hand, he adds, "the kind of bear you need to be afraid of is not feeling threatened by you — it's testing you out as a possible prey item. It's quiet. It stalks you just like a lion might stalk you."

There are an estimated 900,000 black bears across North America, far outnumbering the bigger, more aggressive grizzly, which is limited to Alaska, Canada and a few Western pockets of the Lower 48 states. The number of black-bear attacks is relatively tiny, but it has increased in recent years — largely because both human and bear populations are increasing. While some experts worry that food shortages linked to climate change may lead more grizzlies to invade human communities, black bears aren't going hungry, Herrero says. And although they are less prone to attack, it's best to follow general advice on surviving a bear attack, namely not leaving out trash and never running away from a bear. Overall, though, the danger inevitably depends on the bear, Herrero adds: "[A]ny two bears you meet are as different as any two people you meet. Not every person you come across is a calm poet, not every person is a nasty mugger. Bears, because of their intelligence, develop individual personalities."

(Source: New York Times)


The HMS Beagle sets sail, India launches new nuke tests, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (flooded neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn., on May 9): ZUMA Press

Photo (Western greater sage grouse): U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Image (artist's rendering of high-speed train): U.S. Department of Transportation

Photo (black bear): U.S. National Park Service

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

Daily Briefing: Wed. 5/11/2011
Floods hit Miss. Delta, GOP gov. embraces rail, U.S. to protect more species, and more.