Audubon In Action Breaking News
California Dreaming

Four years ago, Audubon-California began an ambitious campaign to help pass two environmental propositions. The effort was a success. With a combined budget of $4 billion, the propositions are the largest environmental bonds ever passed, and they protect a variety of environments, from watersheds to public recreation areas. 

"Never have we devoted so much time and treasure to an electoral effort--and it was worth every penny," says Dan Taylor, director of Audubon-California. Propositions 12 and 13, as the legislation is known, were easily approved in a public vote in March. "Passing these bond acts is the single most important thing California has done for the environment in the last 10 years," adds Nicole Possert, the chapter's deputy director. "And it will set the pace for the next 50."

"This will ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy the quality of life that past generations have taken for granted," says state senator Jim Costa, principal author of Proposition 13. To make sure today's generation got the message, Audubon focused its campaign in Los Angeles, which is home to more than half the state's population. The plan included buying Spanish-language radio spots and newspaper ads to reach some 10 million people in their native tongue. "Our office is in a diverse urban area," explains Possert, "and our main goal was to embrace this diversity and promote inclusiveness." This objective also inspired Debs Park Nature Center. Scheduled to open in 2001, the Audubon center will be located on a 195-acre park in East Los Angeles.

"This [legislation] is a spectacular legacy for California," says National Audubon president John Flicker, "that sends a message across the country about how the public feels about their environment." 

--Trevor Thieme

Making a Difference
Desert Defender

Photograph by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

If you look way out onto the lakebed and you see a little speck of white just cruising along out there, almost the same color as the alkali, thatís probably a snowy plover," says Mike Prather, staring through his telescope at Owens Lake. A cracked, dry hardpan infamous for its dust storms, Owens Lake, just west of Death Valley National Park in eastern California, does not look like a promising place to go birding. But then Prather has made a habit of showing people the wildlife in forbidding places. n Trained as a botanist and already an avid birder, Prather became interested in the desert when he and his wife, Nancy, moved to Death Valley in 1972 to teach in a two-room schoolhouse. 

"Iíve always had a love for natural history," he says, "and when we moved to Death Valley I started learning about park issues." In 1980 he relocated to Lone Pine, California, 100 miles west. There, he helped found the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society and became an advocate for the largest wilderness-protection bill of the 1990s: the California Desert Protection Act.

A number of environmental groups, including the Eastern Sierra chapter, formed the California Desert Protection League, a coalition that crafted the bill in the early 1980s. The real work began in 1986, though, once the bill was officially introduced to Congress. Prather led field trips for Audubon groups from all over California, as well as for groups that included the billís sponsors and Hollywood actors, because, he says, "when you do political things in California, thereís always movie stars." Prather also testified before the U.S. Senate. "He was really important in getting Audubon at the regional and national levels involved in the bill," says Bob Barnes, the director of California Audubonís Bird Conservation program.

In 1994 the act passed, changing the status of almost 6.5 million acres that had been administered by the Bureau of Land Management and creating a new park, the Mojave National Preserve. The act also upgraded Death Valley and Joshua Tree from national monuments to national parks, and added a combined total of 1.4 million acres to them. An additional 3.5 million acres was designated as BLM wilderness. 

"The biggest thing Mike did," says Barnes, "was to provide a bridge from the traditional way of looking at wilderness as scenic and recreational to a new emphasis on these areas as islands of biodiversity. I donít think there will be a wilderness bill passed in the future that will not take that perspective into account." Since the actís passage, Prather has been the environmental representative to the Death Valley National Park advisory commission.

He has also devoted more time to the birds of Owens Lake, which became a 100-square-mile salt flat in 1913 after the Owens River was diverted to provide water for Los Angeles. Before Prather began investigating the wetlands that dot its perimeter, few people knew that anything lived at Owens Lake besides tough desert animals like the zebra-tailed lizard that scampers between sage bushes. But Prather has found that tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds stop and feed on the wetlandsí brine flies, and that the threatened snowy plover nests on the flats. "About 10 years ago I heard that three artesian wells on the eastern side of the lake were being ordered to be plugged up, and that the California Fish and Game person that signed off on it said there was no potential for harm," says Prather. "I was amazed, because I counted 1,500 avocets there one morning. People just assume itís dead, itís dried-up."

Through years of leading field trips, giving slide shows, and speaking with Fish and Game personnel, Prather has shown people the lakeís value. In January, in fact, Owens Lake was designated an Important Bird Area by National Audubon and the American Bird Conservancy. "Itís when people are ignorant that they make tremendous blunders," Prather says, "and either cover up or destroy things without even knowing theyíre there." óJoshua Malbin

Breaking News


Stories of raptor electrocution are far too frequent for chance anymore," says Montana falconer Kirk Hohenberger, who has lost four of his own falcons. After he was confronted with little cooperation from a Billings utility company and found no existing preventive standards, he initiated a letter-writing campaign directed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, several utilities, and CNN. Wildlife biologist Rick Harness of the Fort Collins Audubon Society in Colorado got involved; others soon joined in. Together they hatched the idea for an educational video to be distributed nationally. 

The Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society in Billings also took part in the effort and began tracking electrocuted raptors, with members checking power lines and the bases of power poles. Robert Lubbers, then chapter vice-president, helped gain attention with newspaper articles. The Western Area Power Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the North American Falconers Association, and the Yellowstone Audubon chapter pooled their resources to produce the video. 

The tape, completed in April, shows how easy it is to insulate transformers and properly space high-voltage lines to prevent raptor accidents. In the long run, these measures can save companies from the costly repairs required when electrocuted raptors shut down power. "It doesn't ensure compliance," says Hohenberger, "but it's a small step toward actually solving a problem." 

--Christina Winters
Also see Zapped!

Citizen Science

River Rendezvous

The tributary took on the stench of raw sewage after it passed by a trailer park in Athens, Georgia. But this was just the beginning. As the stream meandered along toward the Oconee River, it also picked up old tires and decomposing garbage.  "Everything but the kitchen sink was in that stream," says Elizabeth Little, president of the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society.

Unfortunately, much of the North Oconee River is in a similar state. But the citizens of Athens hope to turn the situation around.  In 1998 they took matters into their own hands by creating the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving local water quality. The cornerstone of their program has been the Oconee River Rendezvous, an annual event cosponsored by the chapter. This April, on Earth Day, more than 150 people turned out for the third Rendezvous.  Sloshing through the river, participants helped gauge water quality through visual surveys and water samples.

Eventually, the information gathered will help create a map highlighting areas of special concern, such as those with pronounced pollution. In so doing, event organizers hope it will create a snapshot of the river's health and prompt government officials to take notice of the diminishing water quality. "We hope to raise awareness about water-quality issues within the county," says Little, "and to encourage people to take better care of their watershed." 

--Trevor Thieme


Relief for Horseshoes

For one month each spring, the American horseshoe crab rides the tides of Atlantic estuaries all the way to the water's edge.  Once there, these 10-eyed creatures look around for mates. But on some beaches it's become tough to find one. 

For 21 years Robert Barlow, of SUNY Upstate Medical University at Syracuse, has watched these creatures watch each other on a spit of undeveloped Cape Cod beach known as Mashnee Dike. The neuroscientist is trying to unravel how the animal sees. But a few years ago there were no longer enough crabs at his field site. The reason? They're an easy way to make a buck. The lucrative conch and eel fisheries, valued at a combined $21 million, rely on horseshoe crabs for bait. 

In 1990 Barlow and his students watched as a large skiff appeared at the far end of Mashnee Dike. A fisherman hopped out and gathered hundreds of horseshoe crabs. "[He] was just taking every animal that he could see and filling his boat," Barlow recalls. "Any more animals would have sunk it."

Barlow bought the crabs and returned them to the beach. A few years later he bought a second boatload from another fisherman. But he hasn't been able to keep up. Since 1984 he has documented a 95 percent decline in the mating activity of crabs at Mashnee Dike.

Scientists and fishermen are not the only ones who depend on these creatures. When migrating shorebirds make the long spring trip from South America to the Arctic, they sustain themselves on horseshoe crab eggs they find along the sandy shores of Delaware Bay. The hungry birds double their weight by stuffing themselves with the small green eggs. 

"The eggs are like huge bowls of pasta for the birds," says Perry Plumart of the National Audubon Society. But during the past decade, birds have been competing with fishermen for their springtime feast. "There has been a substantial decline in migratory shorebirds that directly mirrors the heavy overfishing of horseshoe crabs," he says.

Audubon and other conservation groups successfully lobbied New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware to restrict the horseshoe crab bait fishery in 1997 and 1998. But this state-by-state approach had unintended results. As one state protected the animals, the number of crabs landed in nearby states jumped. For example, the horseshoe crab conservation measures of New Jersey and Delaware, enacted in 1997, caused the fishing to shift to Maryland in 1998. And when Maryland adopted protective rules,Virginia's harvest soared. Fishermen from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida began hauling truckloads of horseshoe crabs to the mid-Atlantic states, the heart of the conch fishery. 

In February the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Horseshoe Crab Management Board approved the first coastwide restrictions on horseshoe crab harvests. Now every Atlantic Coast state, from Florida to Maine, must reduce its landings by 25 percent. Although it's not the 50 percent reduction that Audubon had lobbied for, it is a step in the right direction, says Daniel Beard, Audubon's senior vice-president.

The new restrictions, however, won't halt the crab's decline, notes Plumart. For one thing, Virginia's plan for its 2000 fishing season fails to meet the required cap. And some states have inflated their historical landing numbers, so the cutback will have less of an effect. Meanwhile, on Cape Cod, Barlow continues to see fewer crabs. 

--Nancy Eve Cohen

Chapter News

Urban Revival

Tom kelly is bent at an awkward angle, wrestling thorny blackberry bushes out of tangles of ivy. He is part of a volunteer team that is removing in evasive plants from a Seattle park to make way for scores of natives in the name of habitat restoration.

Volunteers from the Seattle Audubon Society, a local neighborhood association, and the public have donated hours of hard work to the Promontory Point Urban Habitat Enhancement Project, on 15 acres in Magnuson Park on Lake Washington.

There are two goals of the restoration project, says Melissa Keigley, Audubon's project manager. One is to provide year-round food, cover, and nesting sites for birds and other local wildlife. "Our second goal is to establish the area as a center of environmental education and stewardship." 

Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have taken part. And several schools are involved. Students from Northwest Montessori School, for example, have planted and are maintaining a butterfly  garden. Researching native plants, butterflies, and design concepts, the students enjoy applying academic skills to the project, says teacher Connie Blair. 

Today Kate Warinsky and two fellow fourth graders are here to help. Warinsky explains that they are members of the Earth Club, a group the girls started on their own. This is their first planting project, and they are anxious to get digging. Why did they decide to come to the park? Replies Warinsky, "We wanted to help the earth." 

--Suzanne Zolfo

Breaking News

A Fatal Plan

It's not a hunt, it's a slaughter," says Elizabeth Hurst-Waitz, president of the Central New Mexico Audubon Society. She's referring to the way cougars are currently being killed in New Mexico--chased up trees by packs of dogs and then shot at point-blank range--under a plan adopted by the New Mexico State Game Commission. Under the plan, ostensibly meant to protect the state's imperiled bighorn sheep population, up to 34 cougars will be killed each year for five years. The chapter has joined with other organizations to protest the plan and is working at the grassroots level to raise public awareness of the killings and pressure the commission to change its decision.

Audubon's opposition is based on several factors. For one thing, previous attempts to kill cougars to augment bighorn populations have failed in several areas of New Mexico. And the killings will take place in at least one Wilderness Area and in three Wilderness Study Areas.

Perhaps most important, explains Lisa Jennings, executive director of Animal Protection of New Mexico, the decision has "no basis in science. It's a plan that is just laughable. They intend to evaluate the effectiveness of their program on increasing the bighorn population after five years, but they have no plan to properly monitor either the cougar or the bighorn population."

Hurst-Waitz calls the plan "scientifically unfounded, fiscally irresponsible, and fatally flawed in its conception, its implementation, and its premise." She is urging people to write to Governor Gary Johnson (New Mexico State Capitol Building, Santa Fe, NM 87503) to protest the cougar killings. 

--Paul Bogard

In Brief

Saving Chicken Little

The lesser prairie chicken has disappeared from more than 90 percent of its ancestral range, an area that includes much of eastern New Mexico. Thanks in part to a two-year effort--letter-writing, bird surveys, and lobbying--by New Mexico Audubon, the state's Department of Game and Fish recommended a threatened listing last September under the state's Wildlife Conservation Act. Just two months later, however, in violation of the act, the department removed its recommendation, citing the need for continued investigation. The reason? Some suspect political pressure from landowners and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. David Henderson, executive director of New Mexico Audubon, says, "Audubon plans to do everything it can to move the state forward in its recovery efforts. If we see declines in population numbers again this year, we'll redirect our energies to get both federal and state listings so that real restoration can begin." Call 505-983-4609 to get involved in recovery efforts. 

--Paul Bogard

Bikes Versus Birds

Many bikers boast of being lovers of the outdoors, but for bird conservationists around New York's Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, there is a fear that tire treads will trample important bird habitat, a place where more than 325 bird species have been recorded. For that reason, the Save Our Sanctuary Committee, the Hudson River Audubon Society, and the New York City Audubon Society have begun a letter-writing campaign to save the refuge from a path they consider invasive. The National Park Service has developed plans for a meandering path, up to 16 feet wide, to cut through the preserve. Constructing the path will require that terrain be leveled and a wall be built. "This has the potential to cause a great amount of damage to a fragile ecosystem," says Joseph O'Connell, Hudson River chapter president. In addition, he explains, the influx of cyclists, joggers, and noise will become greater burdens for the birds to bear. The three groups propose an alternate plan: enhance an existing bike lane parallel to the refuge with a buffer and additional plantings. To voice your concern, write to Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240. 

--Christina Winters

Alaska Gets Tropical

They may not be running for the border, but the Anchorage Audubon Society is following the flight of Alaska's native migratory birds. The chapter recently pledged to aid Pronatura Veracruz, a Mexican nonprofit organization whose mission is to conserve that country's biodi- versity. The Anchorage chapter is primarily involved in efforts to save the Alvarado Wetlands, a threatened habitat along the Gulf Coast where many Alaskan birds winter. Besides Alaska's yellow rump warblers, thrushes, and broad-winged hawks, 290 other bird species live in the area, and more than 4 million birds pass through each year during migration.

The 600,000-acre wetlands is threatened primarily by expanding cattle ranching and sugarcane fields. The chapter's contribution includes donating binoculars, field guides, and equipment for youth education programs. It also sponsors a yearly birding trip, which provides about 20 percent of the funds needed for conservation of the wetlands. Last fall, when chapter president Brad Andres attended the trip, he saw 247 species. To join the nine-day October tour, call 907-786-3378. The trip costs about $2,200, including airfare. 

--Christina Winters

Picture Perfect

Five years ago the Eastman Kodak Company placed a nesting box atop its Rochester, New York, headquarters as part of an effort to attract peregrine falcons. In 1998, to everyone's excitement, a pair of the birds took up residence.

This past May, on International Migratory Bird Day, the falcons were the main attraction at an event sponsored by Kodak and the Genesee Valley Audubon Society. A birdcam showed live video of the nesting pair. Participants could also watch a variety of northeastern migratory birds through telescopes. "Our goal was to instill a sense of stewardship for the falcons," says chapter president June Summers, "and bring about an awareness of the migratory birds that pass through Rochester each spring." 

--Trevor Thieme

Cyber Activism

Hidden Lands

"Our Government has a secret!" reads the newest slogan for the National Audubon Society's National Wildlife Refuge Campaign. Visitors to are urged to vote yes on Refuge Vote 2000, which supports establishing a refuge system independent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

That our government has a secret is hardly news. But this might be one you haven't heard yet: The National Wildlife Refuge System boasts 93 million acres and is home to nearly twice as many endangered species as our national parks. Still, despite the scope of the system, these refuges are essentially hidden lands, lost within the competing interests of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Says campaign director Evan Hirsche, the service can no longer provide the funding and leadership to effectively protect the habitats. Their duties include administering the Endangered Species Act and other wildlife laws, assessing the impact of development projects, and operating fish hatcheries. Audubon advocates creating a National Wildlife Refuge Service, whose sole function would be to administer the refuges. 

--Christina Winters


© 2000  NASI

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