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

July 13, 2001

Air Date: July 13, 2001


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McCain on Climate Change / Diane Toomey

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Republican Senator John McCain recently joined democratic senator John Kerry in trying to push the White House administration to curb global gas emissions. As Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports, Senator McCain's stance is contrary to many members of his own party. (04:30)

Global Warming Commentary / Robert Stavins

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Commentator Robert Stavins, who directs the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, offers a plan he believes could help the US take the lead in global climate change negotiations. (03:20)

Global Warming Commentary / Gernot Wagner

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Commentator Gernot Wagner provides a European take on the likelihood that the next round of negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol will actually produce an agreement. (03:35)

Health Note / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports on the dangers of undergoing surgery while taking herbal medications. (01:15)

Almanac: Moose Pooping Festival

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This week, facts about Alaska's annual Moose Pooping Festival. Every year, residents of Talkeetna, Alaska gather for a little fun with nature's leftovers. (01:30)

Beach Restoration

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Host Steve Curwood talks with Cornelia Dean, science editor of the New York Times, about beach erosion, and the spending of federal money on something that may just wash away in the end. (05:20)

Ethiopian Wolves / Tom Verde

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Ethiopia is home to some of Africa's most unusual species. Among them is the Ethiopian wolf, widely considered to be the world's rarest member of the dog family. A conservation program to secure the habitat of the endangered wolf and monitor its population is underway. Tom Verde reports from Ethiopia's Bale Mountains, where half the world's Ethiopian wolf population lives. (07:45)

News Follow-up

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New developments in stories we've been following recently. (03:00)

Animal Note / Maggie Villiger

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Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports on research that cows groove to slow songs. (01:30)

Listener Letters

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Living on Earth dips into our mailbag to hear what listeners have to say about our stories. (01:30)

The Snake Scientist / Sy Montgomery

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For eight months of the year, garter snakes in Manitoba, Cananda, hibernate underground, stacking themselves one on top of the other, like cordwood. Only for a few weeks each year do they come out of hiding to answer the call of the wild. It doesn't take very much for these snakes to whip themselves into frenzied mating balls. One man has made the study of these slippery mating rites his life's work. Reporter Sy Montgomery trails along with the Snake Scientist. (13:25)

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McCain on Climate Change

CURWOOD: This is Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As diplomats around the world resume negotiations in Bonn, Germany, over the Kyoto protocol to combat global warming, all eyes are on the United States. Every since President Bush declared this spring that he would not support the agreement, the world has waited to see what detailed counterproposal the White House would offer. Among those waiting are members of the United States Senate, who advise and give consent to the President on foreign treaties.

Recently Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts called a hearing of the Commerce Committee to discuss cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Joining the Democrat was Arizona Republican John McCain. Senator McCain has broken ranks with his fellow Republicans on a number of issues, such as campaign finance reform, and now he's questioning President Bush's stance on climate change. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports.

TOOMEY: Senator John Kerry, who chairs the committee, opened the meeting by saying he had sent invitations to senior officials of the Bush administration to come testify. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Chief of Staff Andrew Card were at the top of the list. But the only administration representative who showed up was a scientist from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Senator Kerry was not pleased.

KERRY: But I do regret that other officials have not come to share with us their thinking, just their views at this point, about what some of the possibilities are. This is not a political exercise, this is a policy exercise, one that we're engaged in inquisitively.

TOOMEY: Senator Kerry then went on to attack the White House position on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

KERRY: And as we listened to the President of the administration say, "Well, we're studying this," we're in fact being misled. Because the President is not just studying this; the President has, in fact, taken actions.

TOOMEY: Negative actions, Kerry says. He lambasted President Bush for reneging on his campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, rejecting the Kyoto Protocol without offering alternatives, and proposing an energy plan that would actually increase, Kerry says, this country's carbon dioxide emissions.

Senator Kerry's remarks come as no shock. The Massachusetts Democrat has been working on the issue of climate change since the late 1980s. He's even attended some of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations. So, the real surprise came from the ranking Republican on the committee.

McCAIN: I'm not sure, Mr. Chairman, if we should wait till every scientist in America agrees that this is a serious and almost unprecedented challenge.

TOOMEY: Senator John McCain, perhaps George Bush's biggest rival in the Republican party, vigorously questioned the only person from the Bush administration to show up at the hearing. He grilled N.O.A.A. scientist David Evans on the certainly of global warming.

McCAIN: The body of scientific opinion is--and please correct me if I'm wrong here--that there is global warming, it just depends. It's the end of that curve that goes on since the beginning of time. It depends on whether you believe that there's high end of global warming or a low end of global warming, but all of it is higher than ever observed before. Is that correct?

EVANS: Absolutely correct, yes sir.

McCAIN: So now, we have a body of scientific opinion that agrees that climate change is a reality. The debate is not whether it's happening, the debate is the extent of it. Is that an accurate statement?

TOOMEY: Dr. Evans said yes, but added, it's very difficult to adequately predict how much warming may occur in the future. But the scientist, under questioning from Senator McCain, went on to confirm that the effects of global warming, such as the bleaching of coral reefs and melting of glaciers, have already begun. With that, Senator McCain suggested that the time for waiting is over.

McCAIN: There seems to me there's a rather long list of observable impacts, which should give, it seems to me, some urgency, should lend some urgency to at least modest action.

TOOMEY: As for direct criticism of the White House, Senator McCain was a bit muted. He said he was not appreciative of the Bush administration's lack of involvement in the hearing and hoped, in his words, for "a better response to future invitations." Still, McCain says he believes the administration is committed to some action on global warming. But as the world's environment ministers gather for the next round of Kyoto Protocol negotiations, just what that White House action might be is unclear. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

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Global Warming Commentary

CURWOOD: And now, a couple of comments on the issue. First, we turn to Harvard Professor Robert Stavins. He's advised the Clinton administration, as well as both Bush administrations, on environmental policy. He says there's still an opportunity for the U.S. to take the lead on climate change.

STAVINS: President Bush forcefully rejected the Kyoto Protocol before he had a substitute ready and without first consulting with our major international partners. In retrospect, that was short-sighted and confused. But contrary to appearances, the President's rejection of Kyoto need not signal the death knell for U.S. involvement in climate change negotiations. In fact, the President's actions may actually provide an opportunity for the United States to begin working seriously with other nations on a truly credible long-term strategy.

There's no silver bullet, but three key elements should be part of the basic architecture of the administration's international proposal. First, all nations should be involved, if an agreement is to be truly effective. Developing countries must agree now to take on more stringent commitments over time, as they become wealthier. Second, long-term targets are required for this long-term problem. Unfortunately, the Kyoto Protocol focuses exclusively on short-term targets, which will be costly to meet, yet have, virtually, no effect on long-term climate change. Instead, costs can be kept down by employing moderate targets in the short-term to avoid drastic actions that will render plants and equipment prematurely, and unnecessarily, obsolete. But, at the same time, the future severity of the climate change threat requires that more ambitious long-term targets be put in place now to motivate needed technological change.

The third key element is to work through the market rather than against it. An international emissions trading system can cut overall costs by 50%. With this approach, wealthier countries can finance more climate friendly development paths in poorer nations, and thereby, be spared the most wrenching and least politically realistic adjustments at home.

Now, some observers may believe that Europeans have become so skeptical about the Bush administration that nothing the President proposes will be taken seriously. But here, it is helpful to keep in mind that many governments, European included, cannot deliver under Kyoto promises. As the Canadian Environment Minister recently said, Europe adopted a position they knew would force the United States to pull out.

I can't say that a progressive proposal from the Bush administration will win over Europe's green parties, but it could offer the path forward that Europe's leaders are desperately seeking. They know that an international agreement which does not include the U.S. will be ineffective and may well collapse under its own weight.

I am advocating a better way forward. President Bush can begin to work with other nations to develop the architecture of a new international agreement that is based on sound science, rational economics and pragmatic politics. This will place the United States where it ought to be on this pressing global issue--in a position of international leadership.

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Global Warming Commentary

WAGNER: Diplomats who participate in the climate change circus seem to have a pretty good deal.

CURWOOD: From across the Atlantic, another view on the Kyoto process from Gernot Wagner, a native of Austria.

WAGNER: They get to travel to places like Kyoto, Geneva, and Buenos Aires. And unlike those who attended the Seattle talks on globalization, the climate change bureaucrats can actually enjoy the cities they visit. So far, there haven't been violent demonstrations to keep the huddled inside; not a lot of stone throwing social crusaders are against the idea of cutting CO2 emissions. And corporate lobbyists are too busy starting phony anti-global warming coalitions to go on the street to protest.

But the upcoming meeting in Bonn will draw lots of protestors, who will get to witness first-hand how the Protocol is buried -- alive. The differences among the participants are simply too stark to make it work. Not surprisingly, most of the countries that have already ratified the Kyoto Protocol are island nations in danger of disappearing under the rising sea level. These countries, with populations smaller than the number of physicians trying to keep Dick Cheney alive, have resorted to selling off the internet domain names to make a few bucks before they go under. The U.S., in the meantime, has been adding more than a million SUVs to its fleet, in a desperate attempt to conquer even the most remote shopping mall parking lot.

It's a simple fact that developing countries will feel most of the negative impacts of climate change. Our economies, on the other hand, are profiting nicely from cheap fossil fuel, which lets us enjoy our standard of living at the cost of developing nations. We Europeans do a pretty good job of that. But you have to try pretty hard to be as wasteful as the U.S.

The Kyoto protocol was meant to be a small first step, but the Bush administration insists that China, India and other fast-growing development countries participate in the treaty. The agreement is set to expire in 2012, though, long before even China will catch up to the U.S. in CO2 emissions. After Kyoto, any reasonable treaty should, of course, include these nations, but asking them to pay now for the mess the U.S. and Europe have created, is irresponsible.

Unless the U.S. does an about face, the meeting in Bonn won't be much more than another fruitless attempt to revive the dying Protocol. If you read President Bush's lips, it's dead already. But the European Union can't accept it. Our politicians have to answer to a strong green constituency; and besides, they truly want the treaty to go into effect, preferably, of course, with the U.S., since they also know that any agreement without the world's largest polluter would only amount to a farce.

The Kyoto process will limp through Bonn and perhaps, even crawl into its next meeting in Morocco before it's finally laid to rest. But it might do the Bush administration well to remember that a majority of U.S. voters support the treaty. And a couple of years ago, 2500 U.S. economists, including 8 Nobel Laureates, signed a statement on climate change. They said that preventative steps are not only justified but could be healthy for the U.S. economy -- regardless of what other countries do.

So for Kyoto to come into effect it will be necessary for Congress, and the White House, to act according to these voices. And it will be necessary for Americans to slowly let go of the constitutional right to cheap gas.

CURWOOD: Austrian Gernot Wagner studies environmental economics at Harvard University. We also heard from Professor Robert Stavins, who directs the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard.

[MUSIC: Tom Lehrer, "Pollution"]

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Health Note

CURWOOD: Coming up, the rarest wolf on the planet lives in the mountains of Ethiopia. First, this environmental health note from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: The popularity of herbal medicine has grown tremendously over the past few years. Right now, more than 1,500 different herbal medications are widely available in the U.S. But for surgical patients, taking some of these substances can lead to serious risks. Herbs can affect heart rate, inhibit blood clotting, and interact with anesthesia and pharmaceutical drugs. Writing in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, University of Chicago physicians make recommendations about when to stop the use of herbal medications before surgery. The researchers focussed on the eight most commonly used herbs: echinacea, ephedra, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, kava, St. John's Wort, and valarian. For example, ginkgo, an herb used to enhance memory function, should be stopped about a day and a half before surgery, since it acts as an anti-coagulant. And echinacea, an herb used to boost the immune system, can impair wound healing and, actually, suppress the immune system, when taken long-term.

The American Society of Anesthesiologists has also weighed in on this question. That group suggests patients discontinue the use of all herbal medications at least two weeks before surgery. However, studies show that a majority of patients who take herbs don't tell their doctors about it, even when asked.

That's this week's health note. I'm Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Almanac: Moose Pooping Festival

CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: On the second Saturday of every July, the residents of Talkeetna, Alaska, play host to the annual Moose Dropping Festival. That's right, for one weekend each year, moose droppings, brown pellets three quarters to an inch long, are the start attraction in this little town, population 500.

When the spring sun melts the snow away from the region around Mt. McKinley, the women of Talkeetna scout out the terrain and collect as many of the moose droppings as possible. After they dry the pellets in the sun, they coat them with shellac, and string them together to make jewelry. Other craft items include potpourri, mugs, and swizzle sticks.

It was 29 years ago when some local schoolteachers decided to capitalize on this traditional Alaskan pastime. It seems officials in Talkeetna were thinking of tearing down the town's historic one-room schoolhouse. After a few beers at the local inn, the teachers came up with the festival, as a way to raise money to save their school. At its centerpiece is a lottery called The Moose Drop Dropping. Contestants put marked moose pellets into a sack, then get suspended 1,000 feet above a small x that marks a spot on the ground. Officials then yank a ripcord. The moose dropping that drops closest to the x wins its owner $1,000. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.


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Beach Restoration

CURWOOD: It's summer, and high time for hitting the beach. But many of these U.S. shorelines have suffered erosion from wind, rain and the occasional hurricane. The standard solution is to call in the Army Corps of Engineers to dump more sand on those beaches. The House of Representatives recently passed a measure that would allot a record $150 million dollars to the Corps for beach restoration projects. If it passes in the Senate, the measure would overrule a proposal by President Bush to cut back on federal spending for these projects. Critics say that they're not only a waste of money, but can hurt the environment. Cornelia Dean is science editor for the New York Times, and author of the book, "Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches." She joins us to talk about the consequences of beach restoration. Welcome!

DEAN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: So what exactly is wrong with restoring beaches?

DEAN: Well, in theory, nothing I guess, if you could do it safely, if it had no environmental consequences, and if the people who benefited from it were the people who paid for it. None of which is actually the case.

CURWOOD: If you look at the science, I understand that a number of beach restoration projects are problematic, at best. Can you give us some examples?

DEAN: The beach, a natural beach, is an ecosystem like any other bit of landscape, and when you dredge sand up and dump the sand on this kind of an ecosystem, you, at a minimum, seriously disrupt it. And if you don't match the grain size exactly and that kind of thing, you can change the underlying conditions such that the ecosystem is destroyed. This is particularly an issue in places where sea turtles nest, because sea turtles are very vulnerable to changes in conditions of grain size, beach temperature, water content, and so on. And they are endangered everywhere that they nest in the United States. So, a lot of people say that these beach nourishment projects are bad for the turtles. Of course, the counter-argument to that is, if there were no beach replenishment projects in many of these places, there would be no beach, and then the turtles would be totally out of luck. They would have no place to nest at all.

CURWOOD: Typically, where does the sand come from to compensate for erosion?

DEAN: What happens is, first of all, you have a town which has a beach that's eroding, which means that the ocean is just moving in on the land. And so people want to pump more sand up on the beach, and they identify a source of high-quality beach sand, which is not as simple as it seems, because much of the ocean is not exactly sandy, it's muddy. There are a number of places offshore in Florida that people have identified, and, in fact, towns in Florida fight over those sand resources, over who owns them, because they are in chronic desperate need for replenished sand for their beaches. So they send a dredge, a barge, out to that source of sand, which digs it up, or pumps it up, from the bottom of the ocean, puts it in the barge, and then mixes it with water to make a slurry, and sends that slurry through pipes that spew it up onto the beach. And Florida is now also going to the Bahamas and buying sand from the Bahamas, which raises the eyebrows of a number of people because they fear that the Bahamas are not nearly as wealthy, people in the Bahamas are not nearly as wealthy as people in Florida, that they are going to be damaging their environment for short-term economic gains.

CURWOOD: How much does beach restoration cost, and who pays for it?

DEAN: The cost varies wildly. And they're paid for typically in a cost-sharing arrangement in which the federal government pays 65 percent and the states and localities pay 35 percent. There are a number of people now who say that this is a local problem now and should be financed locally. And one very interesting question is, if the local people had to bear the whole cost of these works, would they go ahead and pay them? And in many places, the answer's probably no. But because the federal government is paying two-thirds of the cost, the projects go ahead.

CURWOOD: Who in Congress pushes for beach restoration?

DEAN: Representatives from coastal states.

CURWOOD: Is there a beach caucus?

DEAN: I don't actually know if it's formally organized, but they work together. There is a big lobbying effort on behalf of this, and the advocates for this on the coast oftentimes are, you know, people who own property on the coast, which is the most expensive real estate in the nation, you know, tend to be prosperous people with connections, political connections. It's not the case all the time, of course. There are many retired people, small holders. But the advocates of this kind of replenishment project tend to speak with a loud voice, and pressed their members of Congress, and their members of Congress responded.

CURWOOD: If more money is thrown at this problem every time a beach erodes, and beachfront property needs to be rebuilt, what's this saying to beachfront property owners?

DEAN: That's one of the major worries of people who are opposed to this kind of spending, because they say all it does is encourage people to build in places where they should not be building in the first place, with the expectation that the federal government will be there, you know, in perpetuity, with large amounts of money to bail them out.

CURWOOD: Cornelia Dean is science editor for the New York Times, and author of the book, "Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches." Thanks for being here.

DEAN: Thank you.


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Ethiopian Wolves

CURWOOD: Better known for its droughts than its wildlife, Ethiopia is home to Africa's only wolf. Fewer than 500 Ethiopian wolves survive in the country's remote and rugged highlands, the so-called rooftop of East Africa. Reporter Tom Verde traveled to Bale Mountains National Park, in Southern Ethiopia, in search of one of the world's rarest canines.

VERDE: There's little about the Ethiopian wolf, or its habitat, that fits the profile of what wolves in Ethiopia are supposed to be like. Take the Sanetti Plateau, elevation roughly 14,000 feet, in the very heart of the Bale Mountains. This rolling rain-soaked dome of heather, lakes, and lichen covered boulders studding the landscape like headstones, looks more like the Scottish Highlands than the dusty, drought-stricken Ethiopia of the evening news.


VERDE: Then, there's the wolf itself, which doesn't sound or behave much like a wolf.


VERDE: In addition to yelping at public radio reporters who venture too close to its den, the Ethiopian wolf is a creature of the day instead of the night, and howls not at the moon but the sunrise. Though it lives in packs like other wolves, unlike other wolves it hunts and eats alone, an understandable adaptation, considering its single serving diet of shrews and rodents.

The animal's appearance is also puzzling. Roughly the size of a coyote, with a rust colored coat, bushy tail, pointed ears and slender snout, it looks more like an overgrown fox or a jackal than a wolf. Indeed, taxonomists, those folks who classify species, have gone back and forth over the years on just what to call this elegant mountain dwelling creature. Ethiopian Jackal was in vogue for some time, as was Simien Fox, after Northern Ethiopia's Simien Mountains, where the animal was first observed by western science in the mid-nineteenth century.

Among locals, it's known as "ky kebero," the Red Jackal. According to a road map of it's DNA, however, ky kebero is neither fox nor jackal, but the descendent of some distance grey wolf ancestor that crossed into Africa at the end of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago.

LAURENSON: When the ice retreated, some wolves were left here; they became very specialized rodent hunters. And they got left on these little islands of Afro alpine habitat, cold habitat.

VERDE: Dr. Karen Laurenson is a veterinarian with the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program. The 12 year old project is a public/private effort to secure the habitat and monitor the population--formerly with radio collars, now by observation and head counts--of Bale's roughly 250 wolves. Cut off from surrounding ecosystems for so many centuries, Bale's wolves, as well as much of the rest of the park's flora and fauna, like those of the Galapagos, are endemic to these mountains, found nowhere else on earth. From toads that avoid water, to rare breed of antelope, to reptiles that defy classification, Bale's highlands and forests, says Laurenson, remain a source of wonder and mystery for wildlife biologists.

LAURENSON: Every time there's an expedition there, they find new species of frogs, of reptiles, of amphibians, of rodents as well. I mean, it's really, still, a lot of it's undiscovered.


VERDE: There are a few other scattered Ethiopian wolf populations, to the north, but Bale's 850 square miles of rolling heaths and stream fed grasslands, the largest track of Afro alpine wilderness on the continent, remain the animal's most viable habitat.

LAURENSON: The abundance of rodent prey here is really high. There are rats running around, grass rats, running around everywhere. There's also, in Bale, there's a giant mole rat, which lives mostly underground, just pops out to clean out its burrow and gather grass to eat. And those are found only in Bale, not in any of the other wolf habitats. There's common mole rats, that you find elsewhere. So we've got the highest density--potentially the highest density of wolves here.


VERDE: Unfortunately for the wolves, there's also a high density of cattle grazing in the park, herds belonging to the Oromo, a pastoral people who migrated to these mountains from Kenya, five centuries ago. Overgrazing means less food for the rodents, who are forced to compete with cattle for their diet of highland grass. Fewer rodents, scientists fear, will eventually mean less food for the wolves. Superstitious Oromo, who consider Ethiopian wolves bad luck, have also been known to take a potshot or two at them, even though they're protected by law.


VERDE: But the most serious threats are domestic dogs, which the Oromo keep to guard their homes and herds. In addition to picking fights with, and sometimes killing, wolves, the dogs spread rabies, canine distemper, and other epidemic diseases, which, by 1995, wiped out 70% of Bale's wolves.


VERDE: The Wolf Conservation team responded with a vaccination program, while educating the Oromo on the importance of eradicating canine disease. This also meant spending lots of time convincing Oromo herdsman that wolves were something to protect rather than persecute.

TRIBESMAN: [speaking in native tongue]

VERDE: Squatting by the fire in his hut, with a shepherd staff by his side, 60 year old Alo Kingo says that, while he fears wolves may rob his livestock of a few lambs or calves, he's come to recognize the importance of vaccinating his dogs. The bigger challenge, says veterinarian Karen Laurenson, was getting the dogs themselves to cooperate.

LAURENSON: Most of the local people here are Muslim, and it's taboo to touch dogs. So the dogs are not used to being handled, they're not used to being caught. And we've spent hours, sometimes, trying to catch dogs. One of our little ploys is to try and put them--sometimes the people, although they won't touch them they'll let them go into the house just so we can catch them. And the dogs go into the house, and then our dogcatcher kind of crawls in through the door. And we're all standing outside and we hear this big "cafuffle" and yelps and screams and shouts and tables overturning and chairs overturning and eventually the door sort of opens and the dog handler comes out, dragging this poor dog behind him. And then it's vaccinated and let go and runs off quite happily.


VERDE: While Bale's wolf population has rebounded to pre-epidemic levels, hybridization with domestic dogs remains a genetic threat, as the Oromo are less inclined to have their animals neutered. Some biologists have suggested that captive breeding program may help. Yet lack of funding, plus the reluctance of the Ethiopian government to allow the exportation of wolves to a foreign breeding facility, have kept these plans on hold.

Others say, however, that fencing off portions of Bale's river valleys and moors from surrounding habitat, in much the same way that glaciers isolated these mountains from the rest of the world, may be enough to save the species--a human contribution to a process nature already began here 12,000 years ago.

For Living On Earth, I'm Tom Verde, in the highlands of Ethiopia's Bale Mountains National Park.

CURWOOD: This is NPR's Living on Earth.


Related link:
Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project
International Wolf Center
News & Information on Ethiopia">

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News Follow-up

CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we've been tracking lately. This winter, we talked about the clash between the planned expansion of Vail Resorts and local activists. Now, as a partner in the project to build some condos near the Keystone Ski Resort, Vail Resorts is encountering official opposition. Colorado's Division of Wildlife contends that developing this parcel would help block a travel route for animals, including the endangered lynx. Chris Hawkins, of the Summit County Planning Department, says scientists are worried about the cumulative impact of development throughout the area.

HAWKINS: They felt that when the sub-division proposal came along, that, in and of itself, it wouldn't cause an impact to this land linkage corridor. However, when you combine that with other currently permitted development in the area, that that would cause a significant adverse impact to wildlife.

CURWOOD: The County's Board of Commissioners rejected the development proposal by a unanimous vote. It's unclear if the developers will appeal or seek to modify their proposal.

This spring, we traveled the Klamath Basin, on the California-Oregon border. Farmers there have been using dammed water to irrigate their fields, for about 90 years. But now drought conditions have led federal officials to funnel most of the available water away from agriculture, to provide habitat for endangered fish. Many farmers in the area are outraged that fish are being placed above their livelihoods, and some protestors have taken matters into their own hands. They've repeatedly opened the irrigation canal's head gates that the government had closed, locked, and even welded shut. Tim Evinger is the Klamath County sheriff.

EVINGER: Emotions are extremely high right now, and I certainly have a huge concern for escalation. It seems as if every time they harden the facility, that somebody's going to use one more step to get it open or get the water flowing, at this point.

CURWOOD: Sheriff Evinger said the water gets shut off again after a few hours.

On the first of July, Tortugas ecological reserve became the largest fully protected marine area in the United States. It comprises 151 square nautical miles of ocean, off the tip of Florida. Divers are welcome, but coral fish and shellfish may not be harvested. As superintendent of the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, Billy Causey now oversees the Tortugas. He compares setting aside this reserve under the sea to the creation of Yellowstone National Park.

CAUSEY: Over 150 years ago when Yellowstone was established to protect very important resources on land, we never thought that there would be a time that we would have to set aside parts of the ocean of this kind of protection--a wilderness, so to speak.

CURWOOD: This reserve meets half of the preservation goals set in 2000 by the Coral Reef Task Force, established by the Clinton administration. And that's this week's follow-up on the news from Living On Earth.

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Animal Note

CURWOOD: Just ahead, Love, reptile style. First, this animal note from Maggie Villiger.

VILLIGER: Is old Bessie the cow stressed-out? If so, she may be listening to the wrong kind of music in her bovine barnyard. Researchers in England decided to investigate whether cows, like people, are calmed by soothing music. They used recorded music to serenade cattle 12 hours every day for two months. Some cows listened to fast-paced songs by bands like The Beatles. Another group of cows grooved to slower tunes, like "Moon River" or Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony." Cows in a third group just listened to the sound of chewing their own cud. Calm cows make more milk, so the researchers measured daily milk output. They discovered that cows exposed to slower songs produced about a cup more milk every day, compared to the cows in the no music group. But those tune-deprived cows still produced about two cups more milk every day than the cows subjected to the faster tunes. Songs with more than 120 beats per minute seemed to stress out the cows.

Farmers reportedly aren't surprised by the findings. Many have been playing the radio in their barns for years. But this is the first time scientists have documented the phenomenon. Next, the researchers want to examine how cows are affected by non-musical sounds, such as traffic. That's this week's animal update. I'm Maggie Villiger.


CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living On Earth.


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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Now it's time to hear from you, our listeners. Our recent report on the ongoing problems of asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana, prompted this e-mail from KPBS listener Michelle Jirik in San Diego. "Is asbestos a contaminant of all vermiculite?," she asks. "I am naturally concerned because this would mean my potting shed is full of asbestos dust, as are my potted plants both in and outdoors."

We turned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for information about potential potting hazards. First, the good news: Not all vermiculite is contaminated. According to the EPA, some vermiculite used for soil mixture does contain a small amount of asbestos, but the risk to consumers is very low. Still, in order to keep exposure to a minimum, the EPA recommends gardeners buy pre-mixed potting soils, a combination of vermiculite and soil. The EPA also suggests that folks who mix vermiculite with soil on their own do so outdoors and keep the mixture damp. Damp soil means less dust, preventing gardeners from breathing in even trace amounts of asbestos.

Vermiculite has also been used in building insulation. If you're concerned about your own home, the EPA suggests calling in a contractor who can test a sample for asbestos contamination.

Questions, comments, we always like to hear your response to our program. Call our listener line anytime at 800.218.9988. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

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The Snake Scientist

CURWOOD: Lions, elephants, crocodiles. These are the craters that make for gripping nature documentaries. But don't forget about the lowly garter snake. Garter snakes? Drama? Don't laugh. Just listen to this report from Sy Montgomery, about the garter snakes of Manitoba, Canada, and the researcher who studies them.

MONTGOMERY: For six weeks each spring, on a windswept prairie in Southern Manitoba, one of the most astonishing spectacles in the natural world unfolds.

MASON: If you look over here, you basically see a huge knot. I'd say that's probably the size of maybe a person's living room couch, so I don't know, there's probably, there might be 2,000 snakes in that mass of snakes moving up there.

MONTGOMERY: That's zoologist Bob Mason. I'm standing with him at the edge of a limestone pit filled with, perhaps, 20,000 slithering snakes.

MASON: It could be some more large aggregations of them here.


MASON: Here's a big hole that I saw some of them here.

MONTGOMERY: Huge, oh my God! They're coming out of it like a volcano. They're just erupting out of this hole.

MASON: They're erupting out of this hole, yep. There you go.

MONTGOMERY: How many animals do you think are here?

MASON: Probably several hundred in just this one little hole.

MONTGOMERY: Everywhere we look, harmless black and yellow stripe red sided garter snakes are awakening from an eight month sleep. They've spent the winter stacked like cordwood in underground caverns beneath the frozen earth. Now the foot-long snakes slither upward through tiny cracks and holes in the limestone. They find themselves at last on the floor of these rocky pits, depressions ranging in size from large manmade quarries, to something your lawn mower could fall into.

The males wake first. And when the females emerge, the snakes perform one of the strangest courtship rituals in the animal kingdom, one that Bob Mason has been documenting for 19 years.

MASON: So the mating ball, like that one over there, occurs where this female has emerged from the den here, and there's so many males on top of that female, and she's writhing around that it ends up taking on a ball like appearance with that writhing of snakes. And so we call that a mating ball. And so, when you're on a slope like we are right now, that mating ball can get so frenetic that the snakes will actually tumble down the slope just like a ball.

MONTGOMERY: And balls of mating snakes do roll down the sides of the pit. A river of reptiles writhes like living spaghetti on the pit's floor. But the scene grows stranger yet. Half a dozen people are picking up snakes by the handful.

MASON: If we all swoop in on them we can get them.

VOICES OF BOB AND COLLEAGUES COLLECTING THE SNAKES: "If we swoop in on them we can get 'em. Who is this big girl? Come here, my dear?"

MONTGOMERY: Volunteers and fellow scientists come from around the world to work with Mason, often putting in 16-hour days during these precious frantic weeks. At the moment, they're stuffing their snakes into pillowcases, a convenient method to transport them to a makeshift field laboratory.

MASON: We go to the Salvation Army and we go in and buy out all their pillowcases. And when we go up to the cash register, the person at the cash register would say, "um, that's an awful lot of pillowcases." And I just say, "boy, you never can have enough pillowcases." And they say, "okay."

I stopped telling people what I really did with these things a long time ago. They were just appalled. So it's better that they think you're some weirdo with a pillowcase fetish than even a bigger weirdo that actually watches snakes have sex for a living.

MONTGOMERY: Mason's research has yielded some extraordinary discoveries and earned him the title of "The Snake Scientist." Back at Oregon State University, his office door is papered with snake cartoons. His computer sports a garter snake screensaver. And the walls and shelves are littered with snake posters, figurines, stuffed toys.

MASON: Most of my life is made up of teaching and doing laboratory research. I just live for those times when I can get out and do our field work here and get away and just get completely immersed in this kind of science.

MONTGOMERY: Mason's fieldwork with the snakes has revolutionized our understanding of these common, but little understood, animals. For the 41-year old scientist, it all began when he was a kid exploring the fields and swamps of Connecticut, and often bringing a few specimens home.

MASON: So I'd have to admit, when you bring the snakes home in your pockets and then they get out. Or you take your dungarees off and you leave them in the laundry pile, then mom grabs the laundry and out pops a snake; or a snake runs out of the washing machine, that can be exciting for family life, but not the best for family harmony, let's just say.

MONTGOMREY: Years later Mason's Ph.D. thesis took him to the snake dens for the first time. The long cold winters forced the cold-blooded snakes to congregate in these limestone caverns. The situation makes for an unparalleled natural laboratory.

MASON: In fact, you can pick up a courting pair and they'll mate right in your hands.

MONTGOMERY: But how do the snakes in the mating ball figure out which one in a hundred animals is the female? The answers to questions like these have come from collecting thousands of pieces of data about these snakes. Bob and his team measure everything from their size, weight and temperature, to the chemistry of their skin secretions and blood.

Back at the field lab, Mason hunches over and deftly grabs a snake with one hand, holding a syringe in the other.

MASON: They have a vein just like a person would get a blood test out of your arm. They have a nice vein right in the middle of their tail that we can put this very thin little needle in.

MONTGOMERY: Once it's drawn, the snake's blood is spun in a centrifuge that runs off the cigarette lighter in the team's truck.


As for that question of how the males find the females, 12 years ago, Mason discovered that these snakes, and possibly many other species of reptiles, are using natural chemicals called pheromones to communicate with one another. That's why they flick their tongues.

MASON: That picks up chemical cues, in this case the pheromone from female's back, and then they draw the tongue back into their mouth. And on the roof of the mouth there's two little holes that are the entrance to what's called the vomeronasal organ. So things like the skin lipids that don't have any smell to our nostrils will have a chemical smell to the vomeronasal organ. So it's very-- it's adapted to sensing and detecting these non-volatile chemical cues.

MONTGOMERY: Mason's discovery of the first pheromone ever isolated from a reptile also showed that the snakes lay down scent trails that other snakes follow. Year after year they use these trails to find the same exact den where they over-wintered the year before.

But there are many more garter snake mysteries yet to solve.

MASON: Here's one that's probably a she-male.

MONTGOMERY: Yes, that's what he said, "she-male." There's strange stuff going on in this mating ball.

MASON: Well, a she-male is something that-- a phenomenon that we discovered-- yep, this is one-- is a phenomenon we discovered, oh, several years ago. So what they do though is they attract the courtship of the other males. They actually smell like they're females.

MONTGOMERY: But why would a male produce a female hormone? The males who do so, Mason discovered, are all newly emerged from the earth, and they're cold. Mason thinks they're tricking the other warmer males into forming a living blanket to heat them up. But watching all this courtship can be lonely for a snake scientist.

MASON: I have to admit, for a snake scientist it can be somewhat difficult to find a partner that is as enthusiastic or at least even mildly enthusiastic about your work as you might be, especially when you're beginning a date and somebody says, "well, I know you're a biologist. What exactly-- what kind of animals do you work with?" And then you say, snakes. And they, "well, maybe this is not going to go as far as we might like to think it is.

MONTGOMERY: Happily though, the chance to help Mason study these snakes attracts a number of volunteers each year. One of them is now Mason's fiancZ.

MASON: I don't think there's too many people that can say they met their future wife in a sea of swarming snakes that are all intent on reproducing. So I think that-- I would like to think that's kind of a romantic site I think.

MONTGOMERY: For bringing him both his science and his sweetheart, Mason is the first to acknowledge that he owes these snakes big time. So when the snakes needed help, he jumped into the fray.


MASON: Well, right now we're directly across from the main den sites here at the Narcisse Wildlife Management area, and we're directly in the ditch, basically, of Provincial Highway Number 17, which is a main artery that heads north out of the city. And the reason we're here is because the snakes in the spring and the fall leave the den sites and then migrate in all directions away from the den, and have to get across this busy highway, which you can hear the cars rushing by now.

MONTGOMERY: So many snakes were killed each spring and fall crossing Highway 17 that in some years road graters had to clear their corpses away so that cars wouldn't skid on the bodies.

MASON: This is of course a huge problem that's a manmade problem. And what happened was the local folks here-- I remember the quote was just that they said it just-- it wasn't right. It just wasn't right to have these snakes being killed on the road.

MONTGOMERY: So the local people and government agencies got together with Mason to try to solve the problem. The solution: drill tunnels under the roadbed so the snakes could cross beneath the road. At first the snakes were reluctant to forsake the nice warm asphalt and enter the cold, dark tunnels. But Mason's science came to the rescue. By laying down a trail of snake pheromone, the reptiles couldn't resist the new route.


MASON: It was just a super story of all the people pulling together for these little garter snakes, of all things. And who would have thought that would happen.


MONTGOMERY: There was a time when the snakes here were considered vermin. Not that long ago, folks would pour gasoline down the snake dens to try to get rid of them. Then the pet trade emerged as a new threat. Local people collected so many of them to sell that some dens were nearly picked clean. Mason's data showed snake numbers were crashing, and so the pet trade was outlawed.

CHILD: I see a snake coming up.

MONTGOMERY: Today, the snake population is healthy, and Manitoba celebrates its snakes.


The snakes have even become a tourist attraction. In the spring, school buses unload some 400 kids a day as teachers bring their classes to see them.

CHILD: Ooh, he feels scaley.


MONTGOMERY: Mason says he's proud that his work has not only further scientific research, but also helped change some people's feelings about these common, harmless and fascinating little animals.

MASON: These garter snakes up in Manitoba are really the ambassadors of the reptile world. They're a wild species that's very approachable, and they can teach these kids a lot of lessons about wildlife and how we need to be vigilant about wildlife and about environmental issues. They're the nicest animals you could ever want to meet.


MONTGOMERY: And he'll be back next year and the year after that as he continues to explore scientific mysteries here, as numerous as the snakes themselves.


In Manitoba, Canada, I'm Sy Montgomery for Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery is author of a children's book about Bob Mason and his snake work. It's called, appropriately enough, "The Snake Scientist."


You can hear our program anytime on our website. Address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988, that's 800-218-9988. CD's, tapes and transcripts are $15.00.


Related link:
The Snake Scientist by Sy Montgomery
Robert Mason's webpage">

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And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next time, the latest round of negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol to combat global warming are getting underway in Bonn, Germany. Living on Earth will broadcast from Bonn to keep you up to date on the effort to update the international consensus on climate change.


Before we go, bats. Michael Barataud recorded several European bat species, and then sound engineer, Jim Cummings used some digital magic to slow down the calls.


CURWOOD: Living On Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, James Curwood and Gernot Wagner, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Milisa Muniz, and Bunny Lester.

We had help this week from Marie Jayasekera and Katy Saunders. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, Executive Producer. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, for reporting on marine issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment, www.wajones.org; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on western issues; the Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Turner Foundation.

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