A few characteristics of the season

Submitted: Dec 24, 2015
Badlands Journal editorial board



Las Vegas Review-Journal

Death Valley still digging out after October flooding

By Henry Brean


Three months after flash floods hammered Death Valley, one of the national park's main attractions and two of its paved entrance roads remain closed, and they're expected to stay that way well into 2016.

Spokeswoman Abby Wines said the park hopes to reopen Badwater Road through Jubilee Pass at Death Valley's southern end by June and Scotty's Castle Road through Grapevine Canyon at the park's northern end sometime in fall.

More specific estimates won't be available until construction contracts have been awarded for the road repairs, she said.

There are two paved roads open into Death Valley from the east: California Route 190 from Death Valley Junction, Calif., and Daylight Pass Road/Nevada state Route 374 from Beatty.

Wines said Scotty's Castle could partially reopen to the public in the fall, but a lot of work remains to be done.

Although the 90-year-old mansion suffered only minor water damage from a small leak in the roof, surrounding buildings and infrastructure were hit hard by the October flash flood.

The raging torrent ripped out one mile of water line, toppled 29 power poles and wiped out the sewer lines and parking lot at the castle. Mud and debris reached the door handles and windows of some buildings. The visitor center, bookstore, offices and exhibits all sustained flood damage.

"It is likely to be a few years until everything is repaired to preflood conditions," Wines said in an email.

Death Valley officials are calling the October event "the most expensive natural disaster in park history," with damage in the tens of millions of dollars.

Road repairs alone in the 3.4 million acre park 100 miles west of Las Vegas are expected to cost $12 million to $15 million.

Wines said the park has secured Federal Highways Administration funding to pay for the work. At least some of that money will be used to reinforce portions of Badwater Road that have been damaged by flooding three times in the past 11 years.

Wines said the storms in October washed away sections of pavement and road bed in several places along a 19-mile stretch of road that remains closed between Shoshone, Calif., and the southeastern end of the park.

Some of the same sections of road also were washed away in 2013.

Long road closures because of flash floods are not uncommon in a place so unaccustomed to sudden downpours.

The floor of Death Valley averages less than 2 inches of rain a year, but more than an inch fell in just a few days at the park's official weather station at Furnace Creek during what turned out to be the wettest October on record there.

The flood at Scotty's Castle — 55 miles north and 3,000 feet above Furnance Creek — was triggered by more than 3 inches of rain and hail in five hours.

In August 2004, a powerful storm flooded the canyon east of Furnace Creek, killing two people and destroying a stretch of California state Route 190, the fastest route between Death Valley and Las Vegas. It took eight months and $10 million to reopen the road.



National Geographic

Recovering Fur Seal Population Threatened by El Nino

Seals were nearly hunted out of existence on California’s Farallon Islands, and now their remarkable comeback is challenged by warm waters.

EXCLUSIVE: Fur Seals Are Back From the Brink on California Islands 

A group of researchers is tracking the gradual return of northern fur seals to the Bay Area of California. The seals were once prized for their thick, warm fur, and they were hunted nearly to extinction in the 1800s. A century later, they're slowly repopulating the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.

By Nadia Drake



SAN FRANCISCO—Nearly 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, a growing population of feisty, fish-loving northern fur seals is waddling around the craggy Farallon Islands. After all but vanishing from these granite shores by the mid-1800s, the seals have been returning in ever-increasing numbers—just in time to take a hit from a strong, brewing El Niño.

Scientists expect the challenging ocean conditions offshore will affect multiple species, and say the situation is a preview of what could come if warming trends continue.  

“Northern fur seals are dramatically affected by El Niños,” says Tony Orr, a wildlife biologist with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Yet he’s optimistic that the population will rebound.

“Their numbers do get smacked down, and it takes a while, but they gradually recover.”

Ups and Downs

Since 2013, the fur seal population in the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge has doubled from 666 to more than 1,200, Ryan Berger of Point Blue Conservation Science reported last Tuesday at a conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy.

“It’s a huge increase,” Berger says.

Berger and his colleagues have been studying the fur seals on the chain’s West End Island since 1996, when the first pup was born there in more than a century. Biologists working on the island count the number of adults and pupsannually, aided by aerial surveys conducted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In the early 1800s, the Farallons hosted more than 100,000 northern fur seals. But over a period of 40 years, hunters with their sights set on the seals’ dense, coveted coats robbed the islands of their flippered inhabitants, reducing the population to basically zero.  

In recent years, the seals have started to find their way back to these wind-whipped rocks from breeding grounds in southern California and Alaska, and it looks like some will stay put.

The news isn’t all good, though. Only 665 pups were born this year, just nine more than the 2014 total of 656. That’s not entirely unexpected in El Niño years, when warm ocean waters make food scarce for mothers and just-weaned pups; in fact, surveys suggest young fur seals often don’t survive at all. Orr says he and his colleagues have never spotted any tagged pups born during the last extreme El Niño winter, in 1997–1998.

“None of them have ever been seen. Ever. That’s crazy,” says Orr. “Their population just crashes during El Niños.”

Not Just Fur Seals

This year’s El Niño is amplifying a problem that has been slowly percolating off the West Coast and affecting more than just the fur seals. Other species have been starving, such as sea lions, whose pups began stranding on California’s beaches in record numbers in early 2013.

Scientists eventually traced the source of the problem to disappearing sardine populations that may be shifting because of a warm water blob in the northern Pacific Ocean.

This year, sea lion pups on the islands off southern California had the lowest weights ever recorded, and their terrible condition portends another year of mass strandings.

“The reality is that we may have a very busy season, and we are anticipating large numbers of animals coming ashore,” says Justin Viezbicke, stranding coordinator at the National Marine Fisheries Service.

One-Two Punch

Now, the effects of the warm water are finally reaching fur seals. This year, more than 150 have washed up along California beaches, most within the past six weeks and many weighing just a smidge more than 10 pounds.

“They’re half of normal weight,” says Shawn Johnson of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, where the pups are being nursed back to health. “That’s extremely small. You can hold them in your hands…and they will try to bite you.”

As the tiny furballs make their way north in search of food, many are simply becoming shark bait or finding themselves on the beach.

It’s not clear why fur seal strandings have lagged behind the sea lions, though scientists suspect it could have to do with the sizes of the populations and where nursing mothers go to look for fish.

Most of the stranded pups are probably coming from a growing colony on San Miguel Island. There, fall surveys revealed that the three-month-old pups weighed just a few pounds more than they did at birth—not nearly big enough to tackle life in the ocean. Now, as the tiny furballs make their way north in search of food, many are simply becoming shark bait or finding themselves on the beach.

While the fur seal population is expected to recover from a tough winter, it’s unclear how far the reverberations from the one-two punch of the blob and El Niño will spread through the ecosystem.

One thing is clear, though: these warm ocean waters can be considered a preview of things to come.

“It’s almost a test bed for what we might be seeing in the future,” says NOAA’sElliott Hazen. “The ecosystem here is used to experiencing changes, but if warming is happening … all those things are going to happen more frequently in future conditions than now.”


National Geographic

Why New U.S. Protections For Lions Matter 

 Jani Actman, National Geographic 


After a tough year, things are looking up for lions. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Monday that it will list two subspecies under the Endangered Species Act, a move that will make it difficult to bring live lions or their parts into the country.

The new rules come six months after Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer shot and killed a beloved lion, Cecil, who was a symbol of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Palmer was not charged in the killing but came under worldwide criticism because of Cecil's death, which became a rallying cry among activists seeking to end lion hunting.


Today’s announcement could help achieve that goal by eliminating the incentive for American hunters—who make up a healthy percentage of those hunting lions—to take home a lion’s head, skin, or other prized parts. The listings put lions on par with other big cats—leopards, tigers, cheetahs—already listed as endangered.

Under the new classifications, lions found in India and West and central Africa, whose numbers have dwindled to about 1,400, will be considered endangered. Lions found in East and Southern Africa will be listed as threatened because there are more lions, at least 17,000, in those regions.  

Also under the new rules, people who have been convicted of a wildlife law violation could be denied a permit to import a lion trophy. That could affect trophy hunters such as Palmer, who according to Minnesota Public Radio News pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the agency about a black bear he killed outside an authorized hunting zone.

Lion numbers worldwide are estimated to have plunged to about 20,000 from more than a million two thousand years ago, according to National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. The usual culprits are to blame: habitat loss, lack of prey, and increased conflict with humans.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says that  “newly available scientific information on the genetics and taxonomy of lions” prompted the listings, which come five years after conservation groups such as the Humane Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare proposed them.

They offer stronger protections than the service’s 2014 proposal, whichNational Geographic reported last October would have listed lions in all African countries as threatened, not endangered.

Raising the Bar

“Listing these lion populations as threatened and endangered species raises the bar significantly,” said Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, in a press briefing.

So what do the new labels mean for hunters? It wouldn’t make it illegal for them to hunt the lions, but it would require a lot more work to bring the animals parts—the trophies of hunting—back to the United States. 
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