11-29-08Merced Sun-StarNew city manager on job MondayForeclosures, Wal-Mart: There are plenty of issues for incoming boss to tackle...SCOTT JASONhttp://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/story/570216.htmlCity Manager John Bramble will take his seat alongside the City Council on Monday, beginning his command of Merced at a time of unprecedented challenges.The 62-year-old has said he's up for the job and signed a five-year contract at a $171,653 annual salary. His first meeting will be relatively benign with no controversial items slated. The city, however, will show one of its warts with a 5:30 p.m. presentation by the gang task force.Bramble replaces Jim Marshall, who retired from the city's top post in January after nearly 17 years. He continued to work until the council chose a successor in October.Bramble comes with a long and varied resume filled with government work in Colorado and California. He spent the past 12 years in Brighton, Colo., a city of 34,000 with about a 40 percent Latino population.He'll immediately put his experience to work. Besides the day-to-day business of the city and remaining nonpolitical in a partisan atmosphere, he'll be faced with the effects of the ongoing foreclosure crisis, the simmering controversy surrounding the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center and the downward spiral of the local economy.Merced County has a foreclosure rate of about 12 percent and real estate agents are expecting another surge of homes to return to the bank come January. Martin Feldstein, a Harvard University professor and former chief economic adviser to Ronald Reagan, predicted last week that the economy and home prices will likely get worse.As home values keep going down, more people will decide it's not worth paying off an expensive mortgage, causing more foreclosures and driving prices lower. No one quite knows when the house market will hit bottom.Law enforcement expects the empty homes scattered across the area to become magnets for drugs and vandalism.In the coming months, city number crunchers will start piecing together the 2008-2009 budget, which will be leaner than the previous. It relied on the city's savings account and job freezes to bridge funding gaps.It's still undecided how the state will settle its shortfall that will grow to $28 billion by May 2010. In past years, the state's raided city piggy banks. The economy's plummet gives more ammunition to leaders and residents supporting Wal-Mart's plans for a distribution center. The controversial project was proposed in 2005 when the city's economy was doing fairly well.Now, with three major retailers -- Circuit City, Linens N Things and Mervyn's -- having closeout sales, the prospect of creating jobs will weigh even more heavily in the debate.The project's draft environmental review is tentatively set for a January release, setting off the first public comment period. After input is collected, the report is amended to address the concerns and re-released for public hearings and then approval or rejection by the council.Merced's also watching one of the pillars of its economy -- County Bank -- begin to show cracks and weakness. The publicly traded company headquartered downtown acknowledged that its ability to survive the economic downturn is an "ongoing concern," and has applied for up to $46 million in federal bailout money to help its bottom line. Selling itself to another bank is an option on the table, though the company's declined to say whether there's been interest.Bank managers are waiting to learn whether they'll get the infusion and has been trying to raise money elsewhere for some time.For the challenges, the city still has some forward momentum. UC Merced will continue growing, bringing in students, faculty and, someday, more industry. Mercy Medical Center Merced's towering hospital along G Street will open May 2010. And the one upside to the housing market's crash is that locals can once again afford to buy a home.That includes Bramble, who will begin learning on Monday night what living in Merced is all about.Sacramento BeeQuick action possible on federal wolf protections...ROCKY BARKERhttp://www.sacbee.com/702/story/1434078.htmlBOISE, Idaho -- Federal wildlife managers hope to remove wolves from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana before President-elect Barack Obama takes office.But environmentalists say a decision before President Bush leaves office will simply delay final resolution by throwing the dispute back into the courts. They say the best course is to take modest interim steps now and then let the Obama administration take a fresh look at wolf management nationwide next year.Either way, a new administration more favorable to environmentalists will inherit the job of sorting out a controversy that has raged since the 1980s. The Bush administration is moving forward with plans nonetheless.Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said this week that his agency will analyze comments on the administration's proposed wolf-management plan, which are due Friday."I'm hoping we can get to a final rule by the end of the year," Bangs said.In March, wolves were removed from the protections of the endangered species list in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and northern Utah. That action gave primary responsibility for managing the animals to the states, which proposed to loosen conditions under which wolves could be killed and to allow hunting. Environmentalists challenged that action, and in July a federal judge in Montana stopped the delisting, placing the predators back on the endangered species list.U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Mont., said the delisting plan was flawed because wolves were allowed to be killed on sight year-round in 90 percent of Wyoming.In October, the federal government offered a new proposal to remove the animals from Endangered Species Act protection; it is the comment period on that plan that is now ending. Federal officials did not reveal how the new plan would differ from the one that Molloy rejected. Instead, they asked the public to comment on a set of questions aimed at Molloy's objections.Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal's office said this week that Wyoming believes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to end federal wolf protections in Idaho and Montana, while leaving them in place in Wyoming. But if the agency takes that route, environmentalists say they are confident the proposal won't stand up in court."The problem with that is the Endangered Species Act doesn't let it delist a portion of its species if it is still is endangered across a significant part of its range," said Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Bozeman, Mont.She and other wolf advocates want instead for the agency to back off its delisting plan, work with Wyoming to bring its protections up to the levels of the other states, and increase efforts to get ranchers to use nonlethal methods to keep wolves from eating livestock.She and other environmentalists will urge Obama's administration to write a national wolf recovery plan that resolves some of the legal hurdles the agency has had nationwide protecting wolves. Judge Paul L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the Bush administration in October to resume protection for gray wolves in the Great Lakes area under the Endangered Species Act.With more than 4,000 wolves in the Midwest, wolves had been delisted there since 2007. In his ruling, Friedman posed this question: Why would the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delist a "distinct population segment" of a species that is thriving even though the broader species remains endangered elsewhere? That court decision and Friedman's question opened up a new debate about why the federal government is handling wolf recovery differently in one region than in another."With a new administration about to be put in place, the whole question of wolf recovery needs to be thought through," Willcox said.But federal and state wildlife officials, pushed by impatient ranchers and hunters, hope to return control over wolves to the states, which traditionally manage wildlife. The new delisting effort is aimed specifically at Molloy's objections to the first plan.Molloy said he agreed with the claims of the 11 environmental groups that filed a lawsuit.They argued that wolves in Yellowstone National Park were not genetically mixing with other wolf populations, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said was necessary.If the wolves don't interbreed throughout the region, that could leave isolated and genetically threatened enclaves, not a sustainable population. Bangs has said his agency's research and scientific documentation shows that the populations are mixing genetically.The judge also said in his ruling that the wolf plans proposed by state wildlife managers in Montana and Idaho were as good as or better than the previous federal rules. Still, Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials have sought to demonstrate to Molloy that their plan for managing the 800 wolves in the state is conservative, said Fish and Game Wildlife Bureau Chief Jim Unsworth."We've put in a little more explanation about how our hunting season will function in the first years and subsequent years," Unsworth said.Opponents have sought to depict Idaho's wolf hunting goals as excessive, he said.But the Idaho Fish and Game Commission said its rules would not let wolf numbers drop below 520 wolves, five times the minimum number set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."The idea is to have a sustainable wolf population we can hunt," Unsworth said. Wash. biologist hazes swans away from deadly lead...PHUONG LE , Associated Presshttp://www.sacbee.com/827/story/1435504.htmlSUMAS, Wash. -- Years of collecting dead carcasses and examining lead-poisoned livers have convinced Mike Smith of this: to save Pacific Coast trumpeter swans, he has to haze them.As the sun set behind Judson Lake - the likely source of the lead poisoning - the wildlife biologist kept vigil in a cramped watchtower with a night-vision scope, a noisemaker and a laser.His mission is to scare the swans off the lake, away from the shotgun pellets that litter the lake bottom and have killed hundreds of the birds. It wasn't long before Smith heard a distinctive swan honk and then spotted a snow-white bird gracefully land on the water. Smith fired his noisemaker, sending a red flare whistling into the sky. The swan didn't budge. He fired again. This time the bird flew away."It is bird harassment for a few moments of their life, but it certainly seems to extend their life," Smith said.When trumpeter swans started dying by the hundreds in recent years, scientists traced the problem to this shallow 100-acre lake that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border.Lead shots have been banned for waterfowl hunting since 1991. But wildlife scientists believe the swans were swallowing leftover pellets from the muddy bottoms of lakes and wetlands.The lead enters the birds' bloodstream and paralyzes their internal organs, Smith said. They die within weeks."All indications are that this is a major source," Smith said of Judson Lake. "We know there's lead here. Since we've kept them off, the mortality has gone way down."Since the hazing began two winters ago, fewer swans have died in southern British Columbia and northern Puget Sound, which includes Seattle.About 100 swans died of lead poisoning in each of those years, a 50 percent drop from the five-year average before hazing. About 1,600 swans have died of lead poisoning in the region since 1999."They're huge, big and white," said Martha Jordan, with the Trumpeter Swan Society. "When they're dead, you notice them."The swans, North America's largest waterfowl, usually arrive in northwestern Washington and southwestern British Columbia in early November. One-sixth of the world's population spends the winter in the Pacific Northwest before migrating to central Alaska in April.Native trumpeter swans have made a comeback in recent decades. About 8,000 swans were counted in the area, compared with about 100 in the early 1970s, according to the state department of fish and wildlife.It takes only one or two pieces of shot to kill a swan, Smith said. Most of the birds that scientists tested had ingested an average of 20 whole pellets, he said."When you see one up close ... and get some idea of just how big and beautiful they are and then to go and see them succumb to as horrible a death as lead poisoning, it's quite heart-wrenching," Smith said.In 2001, scientists with the University of Washington, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service and Trumpeter Swan Society trapped and radio-collared about 300 swans to trace the source of lead.They collected dead carcasses, took blood samples and tracked the birds' patterns. They also took hundreds of core samples from their forage and roost sites and found high lead density in areas that swans frequently used, including Judson."We feel really good about Judson Lake and what we've been doing there," said Jennifer Bohannon, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.But "we need to come up with a long-term solution," she said. "I don't think hazing year to year is the answer. That's the challenge that lies ahead."Local, federal, Canadian fish and wildlife officials and others are now trying to come up with a cleanup plan.While swan hazing has led to an overall drop in deaths in the area, scientists discovered unexpected deaths last year in two counties, Skagit and Snohomish, north of Seattle.It's unclear whether the swans pick up lead in the north and fly south to die, or have found new sources of lead. Scientists are starting to monitor other lakes."We went to nontoxic shot in 1991 and how many years later we're still losing these animals to lead shot," Jordan said. "You've got to know there are more lead from other sources."She noted that lead shot is still legal for hunting upland birds such as pheasant or quail, and for skeet or trap shooting.Smith and two other university colleagues will haze Judson Lake until January, when the water level is too deep for the swans to reach the lake bottom.Smith usually hears the bugle-like honks before he sees them from his makeshift 6-by-6 foot tower. The swans try to roost on the lake at night, after foraging on corn stubble and winter wheat crops in nearby farms.If the noisemaker doesn't work, Smith shines a red laser at the birds to scare them away. As a last resort, he gets into an airboat to physically chase them away. Starting up the roaring engine is usually enough to do the trick.Within several hours, Smith recorded a total of 34 swans hazed from the lake."You learn patience," he said. "It's like fishing for birds." Stockton RecordState water supplies increasingly cloudyAgencies hoping seeding process can help bolster key watersheds...Dana M. Nicholshttp://www.recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081129/A_NEWS/811290323/-1/A_NEWSSAN ANDREAS - Keep your eyes on the clouds rolling east this week. If they're fat enough, they'll get squeezed.Thirsty California water and power agencies - including those serving San Joaquin County - this winter are again sending pilots out to seed the clouds over key watersheds.In fact, the cloud-seeding programs are growing and could potentially double in coming years, according to the California Department of Water Resources.The year's first seeding in the central Sierra could happen this week if conditions are right.The seeding involves the use of chemicals such as silver iodide that cause more water droplets or snowflakes to condense and fall to the ground. Various agencies spend more than $3 million a year statewide on the seeding, which typically generates rain and snow fall that yields an extra 300,000 to 400,000 acre-feet a year of water, according to the California Department of Water Resources.An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre 1 foot deep. Water managers say an acre-foot is about enough water to serve two typical family homes for a year."It definitely is worth it," said Kevin Cunningham, hydro facilities manager for the Northern California Power Agency, which this year for the second time is seeding clouds over watersheds in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties that feed the North Fork Stanislaus River.The Northern California Power Agency, whose local members include the Lodi Electric Utility and Turlock Irrigation District, wants the extra water to spin the turbines at its power generation plant at Collierville Powerhouse on the Stanislaus River south of Murphys.Cunningham said that he estimates the seeding will squeeze an extra 7 percent of water out of a winter's storms. That adds up to about 28,000 acre-feet during a typical year on the North Fork Stanislaus. And the power agency isn't the only beneficiary. The extra water also means better conditions for boaters at Spicer Meadow, and Union and Utica reservoirs, and a better chance that Valley cities like Stockton might get water that ends up stored downstream at New Melones Lake.The Northern California Power Agency program is only in its second year. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., however, has been seeding clouds over the Sierra for five decades, including portions of the Upper Mokelumne River watershed above Salt Spring Reservoir.PG&E also has a new cloud-seeding effort this year in the watersheds of the Pit and McCloud rivers in the far north end of the state. The announcement of cloud seeding there stirred consternation among community residents concerned about the effects of the chemicals used.Independent experts, however, say the concentration of silver in the resulting water and snow, although measurable, is so low that it is below typical background concentrations, or the concentrations humans already encounter from dental fillings or silverware."We really haven't seen negative effects associated with it," said Jeffrey Mount, a geography professor and expert on state rivers at the University of California, Davis.Cloud seeding got a brief spurt of fame this summer when word got out that Chinese officials used the technique to squeeze rain out of clouds before athletes and fans got to Beijing, thus clearing the skies over that city during the Olympics.In California, all cloud seeding is done to yield precipitation where it is wanted. But there are many unanswered questions about cloud seeding - including whether it can make up for rain shortages caused by pollution and climate change.A draft of the California State Water Plan update for 2009 calls for more research on cloud seeding, including how the process interacts with the effects of air pollution. According to the plan draft, recent research suggests that clouds here are yielding less rain and snow because of the effects of dust and other air pollution.Still, the state Department of Water Resources estimates that California might be able to get another 300,000 to 400,000 acre-feet of water each winter if cloud seeding was expanded as far as possible, and that it would only cost around $7 million, or roughly $20 per acre-foot.In a state where water sometimes sells for $200 or $300 an acre-foot, that's a bargain.Los Angeles TimesAnimal rights extremists target UCLA researcher in arson attackThe activists had the wrong address, police say. The Palms-area attack destroyed one car and damaged two more, but none belonged to scientist...Andrew Blanksteinhttp://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-animal-arson29-2008nov29,0,6326147,print.storyAnimal rights activists destroyed one vehicle and badly damaged two others in a Palms-area arson attack last week, authorities said.The incident occurred Nov. 20 and appears to be part of a botched attempt to target a UCLA animal researcher, authorities said.Activists with the group Students and Workers for the Liberation of UCLA Primates claimed responsibility for the attack, stating on an animal rights website that the destroyed car belonged to Goran Lacan, a UCLA "vivisector."But on Friday, Los Angeles Police Department investigators said none of the cars belonged to Lacan. The attackers, they said, targeted the wrong home and doused the wrong car with fuel before setting it on fire. Anti-animal research extremists have increasingly targeted UCLA faculty and researchers with harassment. Past actions include firebombing a UCLA commuter van, flooding a UCLA scientist's home and placing a firebomb in the home of a UCLA researcher's neighbor.The Nov. 20 incident is being investigated by the FBI, the LAPD and the UCLA police.At UCLA, Chancellor Gene Block released a statement condemning the acts. "They are willing not only to risk the lives of those who spend their careers working to help others, but also the lives of the unsuspecting general public, including children," Block said. The snowmobiles of YellowstoneWhy does the Bush administration insist on wreaking environmental havoc on the park?...Editorialhttp://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/editorials/la-ed-snowmobile29-2008nov29,0,6544623,print.storyObserving the actions of the Bush administration over the years, you'd think the Wyoming snowmobile industry was the economic glue holding the country together. National Park Service managers have pressed relentlessly to allow as many of the noisy, polluting recreational machines into Yellowstone National Park as possible, no matter what the public wanted (public comments were overwhelmingly against it), what park preservation laws stated or what the agency's own scientific research found.That's an old, old story for the Bush presidency, and one of many reasons we're glad to see its days waning. But the latest action on snowmobiles so disregards the courts, science and good reason, it's startling even for this administration, and that's saying a lot.After a federal judge in Washington ruled in September that the 540 snowmobiles a day sought by the Park Service was too high a number, the agency's staff issued an environmental report agreeing that so many machines would bring about "major adverse impacts" to Yellowstone. While the staff worked on a new long-term plan, expected to take a couple of years, Yellowstone Supt. Suzanne Lewis announced that the temporary limit would be set at 318 a day.Zero would be better for Yellowstone, where air quality routinely falls below park standards, but the compromise might have been the best possible right now. Then, last week, Lewis suddenly more than doubled the number to 720 machines a day for this winter season, which begins Dec. 15. Lewis said that a second judge's order, upholding the first decision, called for her to boost the numbers, but it is clear that the intent of the court rulings was to allow fewer snowmobiles into the park, not more.These shenanigans deserve early reversal by the new administration. It's not that a month or so of too many snowmobiles will cause irreparable damage. It's that President Bush, who could be using his last days in office to leave a legacy or two worth recalling with pleasure, seems bent instead on wreaking as much environmental damage as possible, and making sure that what we remember most is his administration's disdain for the law, science and the public, as long as industry lobbies were satisfied.