Wenatchi-P’squosa people demonstrate against proposed solar project 

On a Thursday morning in late March, a group of Wenatchi-P’squosa people and a few dozen supporters assembled amid patches of snow and mud atop Badger Mountain in southeastern Washington. The foggy sagebrush-dotted bluff is among dozens of locations that developers want to use for new renewable energy efforts in the state. 

The gathering – the first Indigenous-led demonstration against this proposed development – was intended to highlight threats to cultural resources including food and sacred sites on the mountain. Earlier this year, a ProPublica and HCN investigation found that the state’s process for assessing those resources, which relied on a developer-funded cultural resource survey, had been inadequate. A state archaeologist identified significant shortcomings in the report that was submitted to get the project approved, and the investigation documented bullying behavior by the companies involved.

Wenatchi-P’squosa people demonstrate against proposed solar project 
Colville Tribe Councilmembers Karen Condon (right) and Shar Zacherle speak to the group. “This is still our land,” said Condon. Credit: Emree Weaver/High Country News

The proposed solar project is currently in the hands of a governor-appointed group of state officials who will advise him on whether to permit the project. Organizers said they were concerned that the Energy Facility Siting Evaluation Council (EFSEC) will move the project forward, despite tribal objections. The Colville Tribes have to work with state agencies like EFSEC on consultation and land surveys as part of the permitting process. The tribal nation, along with other Indigenous nations, has formally issued objections but did not publicly support or organize the demonstration. Still, multiple tribal leaders, including council members, showed up and shared their thoughts.

“The Colville Tribe has opposed this project since we were notified,” said Business Councilmember Karen Condon, adding that it breaks her heart and that she personally is opposed. If the solar farm goes in, she said, it will destroy their traditional foods and medicine. “Once our areas are destroyed, our ground is destroyed. We’ll never get that back.”

She said the tribal nation should have a greater say over what happens to it. “This is still our land,” said Condon. “We’re sharing it with those that currently occupy the land, but it’s our land.”

“Once our areas are destroyed, our ground is destroyed. We’ll never get that back.”

“Our people have been coming here since time immemorial to gather our first foods, our medicines,” said organizer Darnell Sam, a former tribal business councilmember and current traditional territories coordinator for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. That confederation includes Sam’s people, the Wenatchi-P’squosa. He added that you can’t walk far in any direction without running into a cultural site. “What happens when we come here, and we can’t gather the food? You’re breaking the law. Long before there was any other law, this was the law: that we have to honor the food.” The development would also impact the Moses Columbia and the federally unrecognized Wanapum people, and at least one of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. The mountain, located near the town of Wenatchee in central Washington, is “a mother. It’s a grandmother. It’s part of our family,” said Sam.

Darnell Sam, a former tribal business councilmember and current traditional territories coordinator for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, speaks at the gathering he helped organize at Badger Mountain. Credit: Emree Weaver/High Country News

Another attendee talked about protecting everything that lives on the land. “Our brothers and sisters, the deer, the bear, the elk,” said Sophie Nomee, chair of the Wenatchi Advisory Group to the Colville Tribal Business Council. “These are the things that we have to continue to protect.” She cares about the non-Native current owners of the land, too, she said. “We don’t want them to experience what our ancestors went through, when they had to migrate up to the Colville Reservation.” 

For one protester, Steven Wynecoop, it’s not just about sovereignty and culinary tradition. The solar development is a health issue. “We can’t keep living off the foods they give us,” said Wynecoop. U.S. government distribution of canned and processed foods on reservations, along with disparities in food access, has been linked to health issues in Native communities. Clarice Paul, a member of the Wanapum Band, said that her community also has cultural ties to the mountain, and that developments on these sacred lands “go against the grain of historical traumatic healing for our people.”

People gather on Badger Mountain in protest of a proposed solar project. Credit: Emree Weaver/High Country News

For some, the demonstration was so important that they pulled their kids out of school to be here. “This is my family’s land,” said Mari St. Pierre, who brought her three children from a couple-hours’ drive away to attend. “A year before my grandma passed, she took us up here to dig for roots.” St. Pierre said she wants her children to continue learning about their ancestral lands, a goal supported by their education at Paschal Sherman Indian School, a residential boarding school originally built by colonizers. The Colville Tribes purchased it in the 1970s to disseminate their own cultural teachings.

“This is my family’s land.”

One supporter, Sonya Schaller, called Badger Mountain a “rare botanical garden.” Attendees proposed other locations for solar arrays: on fallowed farmlands, corporate rooftops, over parking lots or on lands where a Washington State University mapping project has identified least-conflict zones for solar siting. 

Nikoda Miller, a Colville tribal member, speaks to the crowd. Mari St. Pierre (middle left), brought her three children from a couple-hours’ drive away to attend the event.  Credit: Emree Weaver/High Country News

EFSEC has recently hired a contract archaeological firm to redo technical work after the original developer-funded survey sparked numerous objections from tribes and state agencies. If EFSEC approves the project, the final authority to permit lies with Gov. Jay Inslee. In 2021, Inslee vetoed language in the Climate Commitment Act that would have protected the Indigenous right to free, prior and informed consent to any development proposed on Indigenous sacred lands. On Thursday, demonstrators complained that they felt unheard by the state in general, and particularly by EFSEC. “They’re not listening to tribes. They’re not listening to the public. And that’s a problem. I do look forward to the day that we set up a protest in Olympia,” said Condon. Organizers say that’s the plan.

On the same day as the demonstration, EFSEC had planned a visit to the other side of Badger Mountain to conduct technical work with an archaeologist from the Colville Tribes. But that visit was rescheduled: “They’re afraid of us,” shouted someone in the crowd, to a ripple of applause and war whoops.

“Public participation is an important part of the EFSEC review for all projects,” said EFSEC spokesman Karl Holappa in an emailed statement. “We encourage the public to get involved and weigh in through the public comment process.”

Sam said that organizers weren’t thinking about EFSEC when they planned the event, and he emphasized that they’re not just “a bunch of rowdy, wild Indians.”

“It’s been said, and we’re going to say it again: We’re not against green energy. It has its place, but it’s not here on this mountain,” said Sam. “Let it find its place. Let the governor hear that. Let everybody at EFSEC hear that.” 

Sonya Schaller, a supporter from Omak, Washington, holds a sign during a gathering on Badger Mountain in East Wenatchee, Washington. Credit: Emree Weaver/High Country News

B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Email them at b.toastie@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. 
Follow @toastie@journa.host

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The culling of Alaska’s bears and wolves

Over the course of 17 days, the team killed 94 brown bears — including several year-old cubs, who stuck close to their mothers, and 11 newer cubs that were still nursing — five black bears and five wolves. That was nearly four times the number of animals the agency planned to cull. Fish and Game says this reduced the area’s bear population by 74%, though no baseline studies to determine their numbers were conducted in the area. 

The goal was to help the dwindling number of Mulchatna caribou by reducing the number of predators around their calving grounds. The herd’s population has plummeted, from 200,000 in 1997 to around 12,000 today. But the killings set off a political and scientific storm, with many biologists and advocates saying the operation called into question the core of the agency’s approach to managing wildlife, and may have even violated the state constitution.

A caribou herd forages for vegetation on a hill in Alaska.
Alexis Bonogofsky / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Board of Game, which has regulatory authority over wildlife, insisted that intensive control of predators in Wood-Tikchik was the best way to support the struggling herd. But the caribou, which provide essential food and cultural resources for many Alaska Native communities, are facing multiple threats: A slew of climate-related impacts have hampered their grazing, wildfires have burned the forage they rely on, warmer winters may have increased disease, and thawing permafrost has disrupted their migrations.

With conditions rapidly changing as the planet warms, wildlife managers nationwide are facing similar biodiversity crises. Rather than do the difficult work of mitigating rising temperatures, state agencies across the country are finding it easier to blame these declines on predation.

“We don’t want to talk about how the tundra is changing, because that’s something we can’t fix,” says Christi Heun, a former research biologist at Alaska Fish and Game.

“We don’t want to talk about how the tundra is changing, because that’s something we can’t fix.”

In Wyoming, where a deadly winter decimated pronghorn and mule deer, the state spent a record $4.2 million killing coyotes and other predators and is considering expanding bear and mountain lion hunts. Wildlife officials in Washington are contemplating killing sea lions and seals to save faltering salmon populations from extinction. In Minnesota, hunters are inaccurately blaming wolves for low deer numbers and calling for authorities to reduce their population. Culls like these are appealing because they are tangible actions — even when evidence suggests the true threat is much more complex. “You’re putting a Band-Aid on the wrong elbow,” says Heun, who now works for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife. 

As the climate crisis intensifies, she and others say, wildlife management strategies need to shift too. “All we can do is just kind of cross our fingers and mitigate the best we can,” she adds. For people whose job is to control natural systems, “that’s a hard pill to swallow.” 

IN JANUARY 2022, a flurry of snow fell as the Alaska Board of Game gathered in Wasilla, far from where the Mulchatna caribou pawed through drifts, steam rising from their shaggy backs. Its seven members are appointed by the governor. Though they make important decisions like when hunting seasons open, how long they last, and how many animals hunters can take, they are not required to have a background in biology or natural resources. They also do not have to possess any expertise in the matters they decide. Board members, who did not respond to requests for comment, tend to reflect the politics of the administration in office; currently, under Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy, they are sport hunters, trappers, and guides. 

That day, the agenda included a proposal to expand a wolf control program from Wood-Tikchik onto the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge — though that would require federal approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the government ultimately rejected the proposal.

A wolf carries a piece of prey while walking through a national park in Alaska.
National Park Service

The conversation began with two Fish and Game biologists summarizing their research for the board on the herd. Nick Demma explained that, like most ungulates, on average half of Mulchatna’s calves survive. In a study he conducted, many died within two weeks of birth; he mentioned as an aside that their primary predators are brown bears. “But I want to stress that this basic cause of death and mortality rate information is of little use,” he quickly added. Predator and prey dynamics are complex: The calves may have died anyway from injury or disease, and their removal may reduce competition for food and resources, improving the herd’s overall health. 

When Demma tried to analyze the existing wolf control program, he found he didn’t have the data he needed to see if removing the canines helped calves survive. In fact, from 2010 to 2021, when Fish and Game was actively shooting wolves, fewer caribou survived. So the researchers turned their attention to other challenges the herd might be facing. 

His colleague, Renae Sattler, explained that preliminary data from a three-year study suggested there could be a problem with forage quality or quantity, especially in the summer. This could lower pregnancy rates or increase disease and calf mortality. In the 1990s, the herd had swelled as part of a natural boom-and-bust cycle, leading to overgrazing. The slow-growing lichen the animals rely on takes 20 to 50 years to recover. Compounding that, climate change is altering the tundra ecosystem the animals rely upon. She also found that today, 37% of the sampled animals had, or were recently exposed to, brucellosis, which can cause abortions, stillbirths, and injuries. Biologists consider such high levels of disease an outbreak and cause for concern.

Caribou cross a stream in Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sattler also noted that half of the animals that died in the study’s first year were killed by hunters taking them out of season — meaning the predators killing the most adult caribou were people. For all these reasons, the biologists suggested that the Board of Game reconsider the wolf control program.

Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, who oversees the agency, immediately questioned their conclusions, and their recommendation. Killing predators, he said during the meeting, “seems like one of the only things that’s within our direct control.” In other words, it was better than doing nothing. 

Demma seemed taken aback, and chose his words carefully. “I guess what we are kind of trying to present there is just the information,” he told the board. “It’s — you know — wolves aren’t an important factor right now.” The meeting broke for lunch. When it resumed, the board unanimously voted to continue the wolf program through 2028, and, even more surprisingly, to add brown and black bears over a larger area. The public and Fish and Game biologists didn’t have the typical opportunity to comment on this expansion of predator control.

When he heard what happened, “I just was stunned. I was shocked,” says Joel Bennett, a lawyer and a former member of the Board of Game for 13 years. A hunter himself, Bennett served on the board under four governors and recalls his colleagues having a greater diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. Their votes were always split, even on less contentious issues. The unanimous vote “in itself indicates it’s a stacked deck,” he says. That’s a problem, because “the system only works fairly if there is true representation.”

Hoof prints and paw prints dot the sand in Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
Steve Hillebrand / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In August, Bennett and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance filed a lawsuit claiming the agency approved the operation without the necessary “reasoned decision-making,” and without regard for the state’s due process requirements. Bennett also was troubled that the state has tried to keep information about the cull private, including where the bears were killed. He suspects that, to have slain so many animals in just 17 days, the flights might have veered beyond the targeted area. He also wonders if any animals were left wounded. “Why are they hiding so many of the details?” he asked. A public records request reveals that although the board expected the removal of fewer than 20 bears, almost five times that many were culled without any additional consideration. 

Alaska’s wildlife is officially a public resource. Provisions in the state constitution mandate game managers provide for “sustained yields,” including for big game animals like bears. That sometimes clashes with the Dunleavy administration’s focus on predator control. In 2020, for example, the board authorized a no-limit wolf trapping season on the Alexander Archipelago, a patchwork of remote islands in southeast Alaska. It resulted in the deaths of all but five of the genetically distinct canines. The Alaska Wildlife Alliance sued, a case Bennett is now arguing before the state Supreme Court. “That was a gross violation of ‘sustained yield’ in anyone’s definition,” he says, adding that even today, there is no limit on trapping wolves there.

“That was a gross violation of ‘sustained yield’ in anyone’s definition.”

Once, shooting bison from moving trains and leaving them to rot was widely accepted. Attitudes have evolved, as have understandings about predators’ importance — recent research suggests their stabilizing presence may play a crucial role in mitigating some of the effects of climate change. Other studies show predators may help prey adapt more quickly to shifting conditions. But Bennett worries that, just as Alaska’s wildlife faces new pressures in a warming world, management priorities are reverting to earlier stances on how to treat animals. “I’ve certainly done my time in the so-called ‘wolf wars,’” Bennett says, “but we’re entering a new era here with other predators.”

A wolf print is seen in the mud near calving grounds for one of Alaska’s major caribou herds.
Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images via Grist

EVEN AS LEGAL CHALLENGES to the board’s decisions move forward, scientific debate over the effectiveness of predator control has flourished. Part of the problem is that game management decisions are rarely studied in the way scientists would design an experiment. “You’ve got a wild system, with free-ranging animals, and weather, and other factors that are constantly changing,” says Tom Paragi, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. “It’s just not amenable to the classic research design.” Even getting baseline data can take years, and remote areas like Wood-Tikchik, which is accessible only by air or boat, are challenging and expensive places to work. 

Paragi has for more than a decade monitored the state’s intensive wildlife management programs and believes predator control can be effective. Looking at data collected since 2003, he notes that when Alaska culled wolves in four areas in a bid to bolster moose, caribou, and deer populations, their numbers increased. They also remained low in those areas where wolves were left alone. (His examination of this data has not yet been published or subject to peer review.) Elsewhere in the state, removing 96% of black bears in 2003 and 2004, reducing hunting, and killing wolves boosted the number of moose. Heavy snowfall during the next two winters killed many of the calves, and most of the bears returned within six years, but Paragi still considers the efforts a success. By 2009, the moose population had almost doubled.

He’s also not convinced that Demma and Sattler were right when they told board members that predation doesn’t appear to be the most pressing issue for the Mulchatna caribou. He says record salmon runs have likely brought more bears near the park and the calving grounds, and warmer temperatures have fostered the growth of vegetation that provides places to hide as they stalk caribou. As to the suggestion that the herd is suffering from inadequate food supplies, he notes that their birth rate has been high since 2009. That’s often a strong indicator of good nutrition. 

But Sattler says, “It isn’t that cut-and-dried.” A female caribou’s body condition, she explains, exists on a spectrum and affects her survival, the size and strength of any calves, and how long she can nurse or how quickly she gets pregnant again. “The impact of nutrition is wide-reaching and complex, and it isn’t captured in pregnancy rates alone.” Understanding how nutrition, brucellosis, and other factors are impacting the herd is complicated, she says.

“We can present the data, but what you do with the data is ultimately a political decision.”

There are a lot of interacting factors at play on the tundra — and among those trying to determine how best to help the herd. “Part of the frustration on all sides of this is that people have different value systems related to managing wild systems,” Paragi says. To him, last spring’s bear kill wasn’t truly a question of science. “We can present the data, but what you do with the data is ultimately a political decision,” he says. 

Sterling Miller, a retired Fish and Game research biologist and former president of the International Association for Bear Research and Management, acknowledges that crafting regulations is left to the politically appointed Board of Game. But Miller says the agency tends to dismiss criticism of its predator control, when there are valid scientific questions about its effectiveness. In 2022, Miller and his colleagues published an analysis, using Fish and Game harvest data, showing that 40 years of killing predators in an area of south-central Alaska didn’t result in more harvests of moose. “Fish and Game has never pointed out any factual or analytical errors in the analyses that I’ve been involved with,” he says. “Instead, they try to undercut our work by saying it’s based on values.”  

Miller also was involved in what remains one of the agency’s best examples of predator relocations. In 1979, he and another biologist moved 47 brown bears out of a region in south-central Alaska, which resulted in a “significant” increase in the survival of moose calves the next fall. But Miller says Fish and Game often misquotes that work. In reality, due to a lack of funding, Miller didn’t study the young animals long enough to see if they actually reached adulthood. Similarly, Fish and Game conducted an aerial survey this fall of the Mulchatna herd, finding more calves survived after the bear cullings. But Miller and other biologists say that’s not the best metric to measure the operation’s success: These calves may still perish during their first winter. 

The Alaska government is the only one in the world whose goal is to reduce the number of brown bears, Miller says, despite the absence of baseline studies on how many bears are in this part of the state. It irks him that the state continues to use his research as justification for allowing predator measures like bear baiting. In most parts of Alaska, Miller says, “the liberalization of bear hunting regulations has just been so extreme.”

“The liberalization of bear hunting regulations has just been so extreme.”

While last year’s bear killings were particularly egregious, similar cullings have gone largely unnoticed. State data shows over 1,000 wolves and 3,500 brown and black bears have been killed since 2008 alone. In 2016, for example, the federal government shared radio tag information with the state, which used it to kill wolves when they left the safety of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve — destroying so many packs that it ended a 20-year study on predator-prey relationships. “There weren’t enough survivors to maintain a self-sustaining population,” recounted an investigation by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The nearby caribou herd still failed to recover. 

Multiple employees for Fish and Game, who didn’t want to be named amid fear of repercussions, told Grist that the agency was ignoring basic scientific principles, and that political appointees to the Board were not equipped to judge the effectiveness of these programs.

Even these criticisms of the agency’s science have been subject to politics: This summer, a committee of the American Society of Mammalogists drafted a resolution speaking out about Alaska’s predator control — only for it to be leaked to Fish and Game, which put up enough fuss that it was dropped. Link Olson, the curator of mammals at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, was one of many who supported the group taking a position on the issue. Olson says that even as someone who “actively collect[s] mammal specimens for science,” he is deeply concerned with Alaska’s approach to managing predators.

A month later, 34 retired wildlife managers and biologists wrote an open letter criticizing the bear cull and calling the agency’s management goals for the Mulchatna herd “unrealistic.” Meanwhile, neither Demma nor Sattler, the biologists who cautioned the board, are still studying the herd; Demma now works in a different area of the agency, and Sattler has left the state and taken a new job, for what she says are a variety of reasons.

EVERY FALL, millions of people follow a live-streamed view of the biggest bears in Katmai National Park, which sits southeast of Wood-Tikchik. The animals jockey for fish before their hibernation, in an annual bulking up that the National Park Service has turned into a playful competition, giving the bears nicknames like “Chunk,” and, for a particularly large behemoth, 747. 

Though marked on maps, animals like 747 don’t know where the comparative safety of the national park ends and where state management begins. This can mean the difference between life and death, as Alaska and federal agencies have taken very different approaches to predator control: The National Park Service generally prohibits it. This has sparked a years-long federalism battle. Back in 2015, for example, the Board of Game passed a rule allowing brown bear baiting in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, leading the Fish and Wildlife Service to ban it in 2016. The state sued, and in 2020 the Trump administration proposed forcing national wildlife refuges to adopt Alaska’s hunting regulations. Similarly, the National Park Service challenged whether it had to allow practices like using spotlights to blind and shoot hibernating bears in their dens in national park preserves. In 2022, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal agencies have ultimate authority over state laws in refuges; last year, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

A bear hunts for salmon in Katmai National Park.
National Park Service

How these agencies interact with local communities is markedly different, too. Both Alaska Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have regional advisory groups where residents can weigh in on game regulations, but Alissa Nadine Rogers, a resident of the Yukon- Kuskokwim Delta who sits on each, says that, unlike the federal government, it feels like “the state of Alaska does not recognize subsistence users as a priority.” On paper, the state prioritizes subsistence use, but under its constitution, Alaska can’t distinguish between residents, whereas the federal government can put the needs of local and traditional users first. This has frequently led to separate and overlapping state and federal regulations on public lands in Alaska. 

Many people in the region rely on wildlife for a substantial part of their diet. Since the area isn’t connected by roads, groceries must be barged or flown in, making them expensive — a gallon of milk can cost almost $20. In addition to being an important food source, caribou are a traditional part of her Yupik culture, Rogers explains, used for tools and regalia. It’s a real burden for local communities to be told they can’t hunt caribou, which has driven poaching. As state and federal regulations have increased restrictions on hunting, she says residents have difficulty obtaining enough protein to sustain themselves through the winter. “If people don’t understand how it is to live out here, what true perspective do they have?” she asks. “Subsistence users are the ones who bear the burden when it comes to management. And a lot of the time, folks aren’t feeling that their voices are being heard or adequately represented.”

Yet Rogers says state and federal systems can provide an important balance to each other, and she approves of Fish and Game’s predator control efforts. As the former director of natural resources for the Orutsararmiut Native Council, she helped the council write a resolution, later passed by the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives, supporting last spring’s bear and wolf cull. She thinks officials should focus more on climate change but believes culling remains a useful tool. “It gives a vital chance for the [caribou] population and immediately supports growth and recovery,” Rogers says. She also asked Fish and Game to institute a five-year moratorium on all hunting of the herd. “If we go any lower, then we’re pretty much gonna be facing extinction.”

Who gets to make choices about the state’s fish and wildlife resources is a point of increasing tension this year, as a lawsuit unfolds between the state and federal government over who should manage salmon fisheries on the Kuskokwim River, to the west of the Togiak refuge. All five of its salmon returns have faltered for over a decade — making game like caribou even more critical for local communities. (In sharp contrast, to the east of the river, Bristol Bay has seen record recent returns, showing how variable climate impacts can be.) The Alaska Native Federation and the federal government say fishing should be limited to subsistence users, while the state has opened fishing to all state residents.

The sun sets over the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
Getty Images via Grist

To ensure Alaska Native communities have a voice in such critical decisions, the Federation called for tribally designated seats on the Board of Game this fall. “We need to have a balanced Board of Game that represents all Alaskans,” says former Governor Tony Knowles. He, too, recommends passing a law to designate seats on the board for different types of wildlife stakeholders, including Alaska Native and rural residents, conservationists, biologists, recreational users, and others. Knowles also proposes an inquiry into Fish and Game’s bear killings, including recommendations on how to better involve the public in these decisions. “We deserve to know how this all happened so it won’t happen again.”

It’s clear to many that business as usual isn’t working. “I have no idea how the state comes up with their management strategy,” says Brice Eningowuk, the tribal administrator for the council of the Traditional Village of Togiak, an Alaska Native village on the outskirts of the Togiak refuge. He says Fish and Game didn’t tell his community about the bear cull, and he expressed skepticism that primarily killing bears would work. “Bears will eat caribou, but that’s not their primary food source,” he says.

Part of the solution is setting more realistic wildlife goals, according to Pat Walsh, whose career as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist involved supervising the caribou program in the Togiak refuge. Recently retired, he says the current goal for the Mulchatna herd size was set 15 years ago, when the population was at 30,000, and is no longer realistic. Reducing that goal could allow targeted subsistence use — which might help ease some of the poaching. Though Fish and Game has killed wolves around the Mulchatna herd for 12 years, he points out the caribou population has steadily dropped. “We recommended the board reassess the ecological situation,” he says, and develop goals “based on the current conditions, not something that occurred in the past.” 

Today’s landscape already looks quite different. Alaska has warmed twice as quickly as the global average, faster than any other state. When Rogers was in high school, she tested the permafrost near her house as an experiment. As a freshman, she only had to jam the spade in the ground before she hit ice. By the time she was a senior, it thawed to a depth of 23 inches — and in one location, to 4 feet. Summers have been cold and wet, and winters have brought crippling ice storms, rather than snow. Berry seasons have failed, and the normally firm and springy tundra has “disintegrated into mush,” Rogers says.

Feeling the very ground change beneath her feet highlights how little sway she has over these shifts. “How are you gonna yell at the clouds? ‘Hey, quit raining. Hey, you, quit snowing’?” Rogers asked. “There’s no way you can change something that is completely out of your control. We can only adapt.”

Yet despite how quickly these ecosystems are shifting, the Department of Fish and Game has no climate scientists. In the meantime, the agency is authorized to continue killing bears on the Mulchatna calving grounds every year until 2028. (The board plans to hear an annual report on the state’s intensive management later this month.) As Walsh summarizes wryly, “It’s difficult to address habitat problems. It’s difficult to address disease problems. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, let’s go shoot.’”

“It’s difficult to address habitat problems. It’s difficult to address disease problems. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, let’s go shoot.’”

Management decisions can feel stark in the face of nature’s complexity. The tundra is quite literally made from relationships. The lichen the caribou feed on is a symbiotic partnership between two organisms. Fungus provides its intricately branching structure, absorbing water and minerals from the air, while algae produces its energy, bringing together sunlight and soil, inseparable from the habitat they form. These connections sustain the life that blooms and eats and dies under a curving sweep of sky. It’s a system, in the truest and most obvious sense — one that includes the humans deciding what a population can recover from, and what a society can tolerate. 

As another season of snow settles in, the caribou cross the landscape in great, meandering lines. There are thousands of years of migrations behind them and an uncertain future ahead. Like so much in nature, it’s hard to draw a clear threshold. “Everything is going to change,” Rogers says.

Lois Parshley is an award-winning independent investigative journalist. Follow more of her climate reporting @loisparshley on social media. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Activists Win a Battle for Women’s Reproductive Healthcare in a Rural Colorado Town

On June 8, 2023, Lindsay Yeager of Cortez, Colorado, woke up to a barrage of text messages, asking if she had heard about the local birth center closing. Yeager immediately sprang into action. By that evening, protesters gathered across the street from the city’s hospital with placards and a purpose: keeping the birthing center open.

The strategy worked, at least for the time being. About 10 days later, on the eve of another planned protest, Southwest Health System, which operates Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, announced in a press release that the birthing center would remain open “following stakeholder input over the past two weeks.”

Yeager posted in a Facebook group that evening: “Congratulations Montezuma County! We will not be protesting tonight…Our fight is not over. We’ll be taking a breath to regroup but the battle for stable, community-focused care in Montezuma County continues!”

Community members protesting the forthcoming closure of SW Health System’s birth center in June 2023. (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Yeager)

Judging by national trends, Yeager is likely correct that the battle will continue. Across the U.S., under half of rural hospitals like Southwest Memorial provide maternal-care services, and the number is falling, as the Daily Yonder has reported. The cost of maternal services is the primary cause of closures, according to the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform.

In a press release announcing the closure of the birthing center, SW Health named several factors that have affected rural maternal care programs, including cuts in reimbursements, difficulty recruiting specialists, declining birth volume, and an aging population. The press release said these are general problems in rural areas but did not link them expressly to the decision to close the Cortez birthing center.

In December, Southwest Health CEO Joe Theine, said finances are difficult for the maternity program. He said the costs per discharge in labor and delivery have gone up from $3,000 in 2019 to $4,500 in 2022. According to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health, 206 babies were born in a hospital in Montezuma County in 2022. SW Health runs the only hospital in Montezuma County.

Nationwide, less than half of all rural hospitals like SW Health offer maternal services, and the number is dropping, the Daily Yonder has reported. So Cortez has bucked the trend, for now. But the hospital’s long-term ability to provide services like the birthing center depends on community support, said Joe Theine, SW Health CEO.

In meeting minutes from an emergency board meeting on June 15 that was called in response to the birthing center protest, it was stated that SW Health was losing over $1 million annually.

“Birth is not profitable, that is not where healthcare institutions make money,” Yeagers said.

Over 50% of Montezuma County’s hospital births in 2022 were covered by Medicaid.

Southwest Health System is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and is managed by Community Hospital Consulting, which is owned by Community Hospital Corporation, based in Plano, Texas. CHC assumed management in 2018 when the hospital nearly went bankrupt. The CHC website describes SW Health System as a “turnaround story.”

In addition to the Southwest Health System board, the hospital’s building and facilities are governed by the Montezuma County Hospital District board.

Yeager said losing maternal care services can have a ripple effect in a rural area. “I knew that not having the birthing center was going to have this domino effect,” she said. “It was going to affect women’s health care in all facets. It wasn’t just going to be that you wouldn’t be able to deliver a baby there.”

According to a March of Dimes 2022 maternal care deserts report, women in rural areas are at higher risk for childbirth complications and rural hospitals report higher rates of hemorrhage and blood transfusions as compared to urban hospitals. Half the women in rural areas have to travel farther than 30 miles to reach an obstetrics hospital, according to the study.

Without the birthing center, Cortez would be in that group. The next closest birthing center is in Durango, 45 miles east. Durango’s hospital, Mercy Regional Medical Center, is a Catholic affiliate hospital and does not provide tubal ligation or any medical procedures that could be associated with abortion.

The Cortez birthing center also serves southeast Utah or northwest New Mexico.

The closest big cities are Albuquerque (a four-hour drive) and Salt Lake City (a 5.5-hour drive). Denver is about seven hours and many mountain passes away by road.

A Community-Led Effort

Southwest Health’s initial announcement said the birthing center closure was temporary, while the hospital worked “to develop a plan that would allow us to resume these services.” But Yeager said once she started researching, she found no cases of a birth center closing temporarily and successfully reopening.

So she decided to help Cortez (population 9,117) come together to urge the hospital to keep the birthing center open.

The initial protest consisted of community members holding signs with slogans such as “Our Community, Our Hospital” and “Care close to home, just not for mothers and babies” across the street from the hospital.

After that, Yeager and a group of organizers started releasing the names and email addresses of board members and decision-makers for the hospital, and the community began to send a stream of messages opposing the birthing center’s closure. Residents connected via a Facebook group titled “Keep Our Birthing Center & Women’s Services Open,” sharing resources and planning protests.

The group’s first request was for the hospital to hold a public meeting to hear community concerns. SW Health responded with an emergency board meeting on June 15, 2023.

“It was so powerful because it was such a united voice from the community…there was just no way to deny what the community wanted,” Yeager said. She said the birthing center issue drew the community together and attracted support across political boundaries.

Hospital CEO Theine said in December that it’s up to the community to continue to support the hospital and all its services. The hospital’s costs are fixed, while the revenue fluctuates based on the number of people coming in the door. If the hospital provides it, and the community comes, they can provide more services, said Theine, “We exist to serve the community.”

Looking for Alternatives

The lack of maternity services in rural areas has some people looking for alternatives. Elephant Circle is a Colorado-based non-profit dedicated to “birth justice,” a term that includes everything from reproductive health advocacy to finding creative solutions for rural maternal care.

“Birth started in communities. It was upheld by community midwives from the beginning of time,” said Heather Thompson, deputy director of Elephant Circle. “And then the medical industrial complex eliminated midwifery and moved birth from the community into these for-profit institutions. (SW Health is a nonprofit. Ed.) And now we’re seeing some of the outcomes, those systems were not built for Black or Indigenous people. Those systems were not built to thrive in poor monetary resource places.”

Thompson advocates a more community-centered approach to birth through birth centers and midwives, although one issue with this is insurance. Medicaid does not reimburse Certified Professional Midwives (CPM), which is the only midwife certification where practitioners are required to have experience birthing babies in an out-of-hospital setting. CPMs are often only treating women with the means to afford a midwife, due to lack of insurance reimbursement, “which is not actually the populations that we’re worried about,” said Thompson.

Yeager said she worries about transportation issues if there isn’t a birthing option in Montezuma County.

“Over the course of a pregnancy, a woman may have 15 prenatal appointments or more,” Yeager said. “So if there’s a higher risk and if you don’t have a car or you don’t have gas, how many of those appointments are you going to miss? And how much does missing each appointment raise your risk level of complication?”

For now, the birthing center in Cortez remains open.

Yeager said the work to keep the center open is worth it.

“Every baby that’s been born there, every mom that’s received care there, every woman that’s been able to get care there since the date of that potential closure was worth fighting for,” Yeager said.

The post Activists Win a Battle for Women’s Reproductive Healthcare in a Rural Colorado Town appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

The New Mexico co-op breaking up with fossil fuels

A product of the New Deal, Kit Carson was founded in 1944 to bring electricity to rural northern New Mexico. Today, there are 832 rural distribution co-ops nationwide.

In general, rural co-ops rely more on coal and have moved more slowly toward decarbonization than large investor-owned utilities. But that’s changing, with Kit Carson leading the charge. Co-op members worried about climate change are leveraging the distinctly democratic governing structures of rural distribution co-ops to encourage decarbonization. Robin Lunt, chief commercial officer at Guzman Energy, Kit Carson’s current energy supplier, called co-ops “a great bellwether” for shifting public opinion.

“They’re much closer to their communities,” she said, “and to their customers, because their customers are their owners.”

But democracy is messy, and change can take years. Lunt praised Reyes’ patience and persistence at Kit Carson, while Reyes credits the committed, vocal co-op members who pushed it to be “good stewards … of the land and water.” Still, the job is far from done, as the co-op continues its struggle to phase out fossil fuels entirely.

Luis Reyes Jr., CEO of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative.

REYES WAS RAISED IN TAOS, in a home powered by Kit Carson. He was with his mother one day when she paid her bill at the co-op office. A manager offered Reyes a job, which he took after graduating from New Mexico State in 1984 with a degree in electrical engineering. A decade later, he became CEO. 

The early 2000s found the co-op trying to expand its offerings in rural areas and launch internet services. Tri-State was also trying to grow, and, in 2006, it announced plans to build a large coal plant in Kansas. It also wanted Kit Carson to extend its contract until 2050, adding another decade. It was around this time, Reyes said, that some members started asking “some pretty tough questions,” wondering why the co-op wasn’t investing more in renewables and whether it should extend its Tri-State contract.

Bobby Ortega, a retired community banker who was elected to the board in 2005, said that some board members, himself included, were hesitant to move away from fossil fuels. “When I got on this board, I was more leaning towards coal,” he said. “We were all raised on that kind of mentality (about) how our energy would be derived.”

Kit Carson’s long struggle paved the way for other co-ops to leave Tri-State. “That (trend) literally wouldn’t have happened, because nobody else would have had the guts to do it.”

Most of the board members had open minds, though, Ortega said, and Kit Carson refused to consent to an extension of the contract. The co-op wanted to end its relationship with Tri-State. But legally, the contract was still in force, and Kit Carson needed to find another energy provider before it could leave Tri-State.

In the following years, the co-op convened a committee of its members to discuss increasing solar energy usage. Tri-State, however, had set a 5% cap on locally generated electricity. In 2012, a group of Taoseños who shared an interest in renewable energy formed a nonprofit, Renewable Taos, and set a goal of 100% renewable energy for the area — a goal that was blocked by the Tri-State cap.

Renewable Taos reached out to Reyes to discuss the issue. As a co-op, Kit Carson needed buy-in across its service area — Taos and the Taos and Picuris pueblos, along with parts of Colfax and Rio Arriba counties — in order to make large-scale changes. But the co-op’s membership was hardly a monolith. “You had the liberals,” Reyes recalled, and the Renewable Taos members worried about climate change. But there had been an influx of “very wealthy but very conservative folks” in the Angel Fire ski area, and some of them were actively skeptical of renewables. Other Kit Carson members, notably those without much disposable income, feared that renewables would increase their monthly expenses.

Renewable Taos began attending Kit Carson’s board meetings with a new goal in mind: moving the entire service area to 100% renewable energy if the Tri-State contract was broken. “We didn’t align at all,” Reyes recalled. The board thought Renewable Taos, some of whose members were well-to-do retired scientists, were “kind of telling us dummies what to do,” he said, with a chuckle.

But Reyes and the board found a way to address that tension. “At the end of our first meeting (with Renewable Taos), I suggested to the board, well, if these guys are really going to help us and be critical, let’s give ’em some homework,” he said. The board asked Renewable Taos to visit every municipality Kit Carson served to build support for a joint resolution declaring that all co-op members were committed to fighting climate change.

Jay Levine, one of the original Renewable Taos members, still wonders if that was an attempt to put them off politely. Even so, the group accepted Reyes’ challenge, visiting every municipality in Kit Carson’s service area and answering questions about renewables and energy costs. “We talked to a lot of folks, and I think everywhere we went, they signed on,” he said. The process was aided by the falling cost of solar energy, which began reaching price parity with coal in the mid-2010s.

By 2014, every community in Kit Carson’s service area had signed on to Renewable Taos’ clean energy resolution. Two years later, after the co-op board finally found an alternate energy supplier, it broke its Tri-State contract for $37 million. Thanks to increased control over its power sources, Kit Carson reached an important goal in 2022: Renewable energy now provides 100% of the year-round daytime electrical needs of its more than 30,000 members. 

Now, other co-ops, notably Delta-Montrose in western Colorado, are following Kit Carson’s lead and leaving Tri-State in the name of clean energy.

Levine, the Renewable Taos member, said that Kit Carson’s long struggle paved the way for other co-ops to leave Tri-State. “That (trend) literally wouldn’t have happened,” he said, “because nobody else would have had the guts to do it.”

Kit Carson’s largest solar array, near Taos, New Mexico. Renewable energy now provides 100% of the year-round daytime electrical needs of the energy co-op’s more than 30,000 members.

THE CO-OP’S ACHIEVEMENT — hitting the 100% daytime clean energy milestone — is clearly significant, but it also needs to meet a New Mexico mandate that rural co-ops transition entirely to carbon-neutral electricity by 2050. One potential pathway involves a green hydrogen plant that the co-op has explored with the National Renewable Energy Lab, other government partners and the small village of Questa.

Conventional hydrogen production, which uses fossil fuels, contributes to climate change, but so-called green hydrogen can be produced by splitting water atoms with an electrolyzer powered by renewable energy. Proponents think widespread green hydrogen could reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 16% by mid-century. Despite all the investment and hype, however, few green hydrogen projects have broken ground. Still, Kit Carson has beaten the odds before; Reyes recalled that many people doubted that the co-op would ever reach its goal of meeting daytime energy needs with 100% renewables.

Kit Carson reached an important goal in 2022: Renewable energy now provides 100% of the year-round daytime electrical needs of its more than 30,000 members. 

The Questa plant would be built at a shuttered molybdenum mine, which operated from the 1920s until 2014 and was a major source of both jobs and pollution. In 2005, a Chevron subsidiary, Chevron Mining, acquired Unocal, the mine’s parent company. Today, Chevron manages the remediation of what is now a Superfund site.

Energy users in the Taos area.

At a series of local meetings, water was the top concern for Kit Carson members. A variety of sources could be used to power the proposed plant, including water that Chevron is already pulling from the underground mine, treating, and sending to the Red River as part of its Superfund mitigation. Reyes is optimistic about the hydrogen project, describing it as the next phase of Kit Carson’s clean energy journey. But he noted that the future of the project, and of the co-op as a whole, ultimately lies in the hands of the co-op’s members. “They have been part of that equation the whole time,” he said.   

Mary Catherine O’Connor is an award-winning reporter whose beats include climate change, energy, waste and recreation. Her work has appeared in Outside, The Guardian and NPR. She helps produce The Big Switch podcast.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

The Endangered Species Act’s complicated legacy in Indian Country

Tribal nations have a complicated relationship with the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Tribal governments have used the ESA on behalf of imperiled, culturally important species, litigating over dams that block salmon migration and securing funding to reintroduce protected species on their lands. But beyond Alaskan Native subsistence hunting rights, the law does not acknowledge tribal sovereignty. How, or even if, it affects treaty hunting rights and other aspects of sovereignty remains a disputed question.

The Endangered Species Act can be “both sword and shield for tribes,” said Monte Mills, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington. “The limited way in which the ESA views wildlife resources, which I think is great in terms of protecting those threatened, endangered species, also doesn’t really account for …  tribal sovereignty.”

IN 1997, INTERIOR SECRETARY Bruce Babbitt and Commerce Secretary William Daley sought to remedy the law’s silence on tribal rights with an order acknowledging that tribal lands are not the same as federal lands. It directed federal agencies to defer to tribal management plans for plants and wildlife and to consult with tribal governments whenever a species found on tribal lands gained protected status. A spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency now “routinely considers and uses tribal expertise and knowledge” in determining when to list a species and how to designate its critical habitat. (By law, federal agencies and federally funded activities must avoid “adverse modification” of critical habitat.)

In some cases, the federal government has chosen to exclude tribal lands when it designates critical habitat, citing possible negative impacts on tribal sovereignty or political relations. In 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service did so when it identified critical habitat for the endangered arroyo toad, a bumpy, 2-inch-long Southern California amphibian with a melodious trill. Two years later, the agency made a similar decision concerning the southwestern willow flycatcher after a number of tribal nations objected to the inclusion of their lands. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe wrote that a critical habitat designation on tribal lands would require an “onerous, time-consuming bureaucratic process that infringes on tribal sovereignty and treaty rights and frustrates the ability of the Tribe to provide basic government services.”

“The limited way in which the ESA views wildlife resources, also doesn’t really account for…tribal sovereignty.”

The federal government doesn’t always make exceptions when conflicts occur. On the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah, the law’s protections for two endemic cactus species clashed with the Ute Indian Tribe’s ability to develop its energy resources, its largest source of revenue.

Ataya Cesspooch, an enrolled citizen of the Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine Tribes and Northern Ute descendant, worked for the Ute Tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs as an environmental protection specialist when the tribe was developing its own management plan for the cactus in 2015. The Endangered Species Act doesn’t apply to listed plants on private lands, but it does apply to those on tribal lands when activities that need federal permitting, including oil and gas, are involved. Federal protections for the two species, she said, often fell into a “gray area” between recommendations and requirements, increasing the already lengthy federal approval process for oil and gas drilling on tribal lands. “Overall, the Fish and Wildlife Service did a really bad job of consulting with the tribe, of keeping them in the loop around a lot of this decision-making,” Cesspooch said. “That then led to a lot of antagonistic feelings.”

Cesspooch, now a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, plans to interview Ute tribal members about their perceptions of energy development on the reservation for her dissertation research. Compounding the frustration around the cactus is the tribe’s own history of land dispossession: The U.S. forcibly removed Ute bands from their homelands in Colorado in 1880, separating them from culturally significant plants and wildlife, which do not include the cactus. “It’s caused a lot of tribal members to say the U.S. government cares more about this cactus than it does about Ute people,” Cesspooch said. 

SOME OF THE TENSION around the Endangered Species Act concerns tribal nations’ right to fish, hunt and gather on their homelands, as recognized by treaties with the U.S. government and by the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. The Colville Tribes have reintroduced not only lynx but salmon, pronghorn, bison and bighorn sheep, hoping to establish healthy populations of these species and resume a hunting relationship with them, just as they have with gray wolves, says Chairman Erickson. Gray wolves remain federally protected in much of the U.S., but at least seven packs overlap with Colville lands, and the tribe has allowed its members to hunt since 2012. Earlier this year, the state of Colorado even approached the tribe about transplanting some wolves from the area for reintroduction, a possibility that remains under discussion.

“It’s caused a lot of tribal members to say the U.S. government cares more about this cactus than it does about Ute people.”

When it comes to restoring wildlife on tribal lands, Erickson explained, “it’s not just to get them on the landscape, which is important. We want to make sure they’re there for future generations, because we have a lot of cultural ties to all these species as well.” 

The impacts of off-reservation development and environmental degradation have forced some tribes to scale back subsistence activities. The Klamath Tribes in southwest Oregon once fished for c’waam and koptu, two species of suckerfish that live only in the Upper Klamath River Basin, but they stopped in 1986 because polluted waters and altered hydrology had caused both species’ rapid decline. Today, both species are listed as endangered, and there are only a few thousand koptu left. In Canada, West Moberly First Nations ceased hunting Klinse-Za caribou despite their importance to tribal lifeways; in 2013, there were just 38 caribou left. By 2022, after an Indigenous-led recovery effort, there were 114, a number that meets a recovery target set by the Canadian government under the Species at Risk Act, the ESA’s Canadian counterpart, but still falls well below a sustainable hunting population. 

Laws like the ESA and the Species at Risk Act “were designed to make sure species weren’t lost, but they were not designed to be able to cultivate abundance or sustain abundant populations. Their job is to make sure things don’t go to zero,” said Clayton Lamb, a wildlife biologist who co-wrote a paper with West Moberly Chief Roland Willson on the need to include tribal priorities in species recovery plans. Instead of aiming for the minimum number required for species survival, recovery goals could reflect the historic abundance — the number of caribou or salmon that would support regular hunting and fishing and the reconnection of culturally meaningful foodways.

As Erickson pointed out, many of the government actions and policies that initially reduced wildlife abundance also displaced and diminished tribal people and power. “A lot of the native species that have been extirpated are similar to us as tribes, Native Americans, and what they tried to do to us,” he said. The Endangered Species Act was passed to help recover imperiled species, but tribes want to do more than that: They want to restore their own relationship with those plants and animals. As Erickson put it, they want endangered species to “not just recover, but flourish.”   

This story is part of High Country News’ Conservation Beyond Boundaries project, funded by the BAND Foundation.

Anna V. Smith is an associate editor of High Country News. She writes and edits stories on tribal sovereignty and environmental justice for the Indigenous Affairs desk from Colorado.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

More tourism communities ask voters to approve lodging taxes for child care

The new stipend for child care employees in Eagle County is funded through a lodging tax, a mechanism that Colorado communities, especially in mountain resort regions, are increasingly tapping to generate new dollars for housing and child care for people who live there. The idea is that local workers power the tourism industry, so visitors should contribute to efforts that support a stable workforce. Such taxes also reframe child care as a larger economic interest rather than just a mom-and-dad issue.

The Current is an inclusive nonprofit, non-partisan news organization providing in-depth watchdog journalism for Savannah and Coastal Georgia’s communities.

When burn scars become roaring earthen rivers

No one was hurt, and no houses burned. But now, wildfire survivors in Washington face a new threat: debris flows. Wildfires can lessen the soil’s ability to absorb water, so when thunderstorms, rapid snowmelt, atmospheric rivers or rain falling on snow occur in a burned area, that can create a roaring earthen river. Debris flows can move quickly — 30 mph or more — sliding from the uplands to the valley floor in a matter of minutes.  

Debris flows are more powerful and dangerous than mudslides and slower-moving landslides: They can sweep away boulders, trees and cars and destroy everything in their path, including roads and homes and the people who live in them. Last year, in Washington’s Okanogan County, two residents were rescued from their home after a debris flow. Another flow destroyed a cabin and sent a foot of water and mud into more than 30 structures. And in 2018, 23 people were killed when heavy rains triggered a debris flow in the burn scar of Southern California’s Thomas Fire. 

United States Geological Survey (USGS) modeling indicates that, for perhaps the next five to seven years, there’s a high probability of debris flows in the mountains above Grotto and other communities along the South Fork of the Skykomish River Corridor. The USGS models were originally created using data from drier areas in Southern California, where debris flows have been happening for years after fires, and may be less accurate in Washington’s wet climate — particularly on the rainier side of the Cascade Range. And until recently, there’s been little research on how post-fire debris flows behave in Washington. 

ONE MAY AFTERNOON, eight months after the fire, a team of researchers made their way up a soot-blackened hillside a few miles from Grotto. Ashy dirt crunched underfoot as they scrambled over and around trees that had been toppled by the fire. They were looking for the right tree to mount a game camera on in order to document future debris flows. They also wanted to check on the rain gauges they’d installed last fall, not long after the fire, when rainy weather and still-smoldering stumps had made setting up the equipment extra-tricky.

The Walker Creek Fire, which burned in the fall of 2021, created ideal conditions for a post-wildfire debris flow. The following summer, a slurry of mud, rocks and large woody debris damaged cars, roads and properties in central Washington.
Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources

The Washington Geological Survey’s Wildfire-Associated Landslide Emergency Response Team is tracking recently burned sites in the state to understand when landslides occur and how much precipitation it takes to trigger them. “The missing piece is the exact time,” geologist Kate Mickelson said. The weather patterns, geography and vegetation of the Pacific Northwest are different from California’s, and these variations can influence when the earth slides.

“The missing piece is the exact time.”

In the Northwest, for example, debris flows can occur several years after a fire, while in California, they usually happen in the first two rainy seasons that follow. (Researchers think that might be because tree roots take longer to decay in the Pacific Northwest.) Generally, National Weather Service debris-flow warnings are triggered if a quarter-inch of rain falls in 15 minutes, or if one inch falls in an hour. Sometimes they’re issued for at least the first two years post-fire, either countywide or just for the area near a burn scar. The warning system’s thresholds can be tweaked to reflect the region. But in rainy parts of western Washington, heavy rain is not unusual, and scientists fear that issuing alerts all the time could numb people to the danger, making them less likely to evacuate.

After 15 minutes of hiking, the researchers found the perfect location for their camera: a standing tree perched just above a likely flow path, a few feet up on a mound of rocks. Finding the right spot is tricky; the tree must be close enough to a debris flow for it to trigger the camera to record, but not so close that the tree (and camera) get swept away. Mickelson and geoscientist Emilie Richard wrapped a strap around the tree’s trunk and mounted the solar-powered camera facing south, then took a few test pictures to make sure it was properly angled. 

A post-wildfire debris flow in the burn scar of the Walker Creek Fire caused significant damage in central Washington in the summer of 2022.
Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources

Game cameras, rain gauges and other tools can help scientists understand how much precipitation it takes to trigger debris flows in western Washington, and help the USGS fine-tune its modeling. Mickelson’s team has set up cameras in five and rain gauges in 11 recent burn scars around the state.  In some locations, they also installed pressure transducers, devices that measure the water’s pressure on the earth. The devices are drilled into bedrock and can sense the rapid increases in pressure caused by a debris flow. 

When the researchers returned in May to install the camera, they also checked on their other equipment. Luckily, all the rain gauges were still in place, so they downloaded the data and changed batteries that were low on juice after the cold winter months. The equipment they installed will monitor the sites for the next five years, noting real-time rainfall — unless, of course, everything gets taken out by a debris flow. 

SITTING BAREFOOT in their front yard in May, amid lilac bushes and daisies, Grotto residents expressed their concerns. “We have to cross our fingers,” Lorenzo Vasquez said. “We’re screwed for mudslides,” Richard Walther, his neighbor, agreed. They’re worried that debris flows could reroute the creek between their homes and the mountainside, causing flooding or road damage. The Washington Geological Survey scientists hope their work will help residents prepare in the future. “We would like to be able to tell people, ‘This is your peak risk,’” Mickelson said. “We just don’t know that yet.”   

Kylie Mohr is a correspondent for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at kylie.mohr@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy

States opposed tribes’ access to the Colorado River 70 years ago. History is repeating itself.

A lawyer named T.F. Neighbors, who was special assistant to the U.S. attorney general, foresaw the likely outcome if the federal government failed to assert tribes’ claims to the river: States would consume the water and block tribes from ever acquiring their full share.

This story is the sixth in our Waiting for Water series about the Colorado River. Get this and other great reporting from High Country News by signing up for our newsletter.

In 1953, as Neighbors helped prepare the department’s legal strategy, he wrote in a memo to the assistant attorney general, “When an economy has grown up premised upon the use of Indian waters, the Indians are confronted with the virtual impossibility of having awarded to them the waters of which they had been illegally deprived.”

As the case dragged on, it became clear the largest tribe in the region, the Navajo Nation, would get no water from the proceedings. A lawyer for the tribe, Norman Littell, wrote then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1961, warning of the dire future he saw if that were the outcome. “This grave loss to the tribe will preclude future development of the reservation and otherwise prevent the beneficial development of the reservation intended by the Congress,” Littell wrote.

Both warnings, only recently rediscovered, proved prescient. States successfully opposed most tribes’ attempts to have their water rights recognized through the landmark case, and tribes have spent the decades that followed fighting to get what’s owed to them under a 1908 Supreme Court ruling and long-standing treaties.

In 1953, a Department of Justice attorney wrote an internal memo detailing the future negative impacts that would come from excluding tribal nations from the case.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

The possibility of this outcome was clear to attorneys and officials even at the time, according to thousands of pages of court files, correspondence, agency memos and other contemporary records unearthed and cataloged by University of Virginia history professor Christian McMillen, who shared them with ProPublica and High Country News. While Arizona and California’s fight was covered in the press at the time, the documents, drawn from the National Archives, reveal telling details from the case, including startling similarities in the way states have rebuffed tribes’ attempts to access their water in the ensuing 70 years.

Many of the 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin still have been unable to access water to which they’re entitled. And Arizona for years has taken a uniquely aggressive stance against tribes’ attempts to use their water, a recent ProPublica and High Country News investigation found.

“It’s very much a repeat of the same problems we have today,” Andrew Curley, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Arizona and member of the Navajo Nation, said of the records. Tribes’ ambitions to access water are approached as “this fantastical apocalyptic scenario” that would hurt states’ economies, he said.

Arizona sued California in 1952, asking the Supreme Court to determine how much Colorado River water each state deserved. The records show that, even as the states fought each other in court, Arizona led a coalition of states in jointly lobbying the U.S. attorney general to cease arguing for tribes’ water claims. The attorney general, bowing to the pressure, removed the strongest language in the petition, even as Department of Justice attorneys warned of the consequences. “Politics smothered the rights of the Indians,” one of the attorneys later wrote.

“This grave loss to the tribe will preclude future development of the reservation and otherwise prevent the beneficial development of the reservation intended by the Congress.”

The Supreme Court’s 1964 decree in the case quantified the water rights of the Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — and five tribes whose lands are adjacent to the river. While the ruling defended tribes’ right to water, it did little to help them access it. By excluding all other basin tribes from the case, the court missed an opportunity to settle their rights once and for all.

The Navajo Nation — with a reservation spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — was among those left out of the case. “Clearly, Native people up and down the Colorado River were overlooked. We need to get that fixed, and that is exactly what the Navajo Nation is trying to do,” said George Hardeen, a spokesperson for the Navajo Nation.

Today, millions more people rely on a river diminished by a hotter climate. Between 1950 and 2020, Arizona’s population alone grew from about 750,000 to more than 7 million, bringing booming cities and thirsty industries.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation is no closer to compelling the federal government to secure its water rights in Arizona. In June, the Supreme Court again ruled against the tribe, in a separate case, Arizona v. Navajo Nation. Justice Neil Gorsuch cited the earlier case in his dissent, arguing the conservative court majority ignored history when it declined to quantify the tribe’s water rights.

McMillen agreed. The federal government “rejected that opportunity” in the 1950s and ’60s to more forcefully assert tribes’ water claims, he said. As a result, “Native people have been trying for the better part of a century now to get answers to these questions and have been thwarted in one way or another that entire time.”

J.D. Reeves/High Country News and ProPublica

Three missing words

As Arizona prepared to take California to court in the early 1950s, the federal government faced a delicate choice. It represented a host of interests along the river that would be affected by the outcome: tribes, dams and reservoirs and national parks. How should it balance their needs?

The Supreme Court had ruled in 1908 that tribes with reservations had an inherent right to water, but neither Congress nor the courts had defined it. The 1922 Colorado River Compact, which first allocated the river’s water, also didn’t settle tribal claims.

In the decades that followed the signing of the compact, the federal government constructed massive projects — including the Hoover, Parker and Imperial dams — to harness the river. Federal policy at the time was generally hostile to tribes, as Congress passed laws eroding the United States’ treaty-based obligations. Over a 15-year period, the country dissolved its relationships with more than 100 tribes, stripping them of land and diminishing their political power. “It was a very threatening time for tribes,” Curley said of what would be known as the Termination Era.

Tribal water rights were “prior and superior” to all other water users in the basin, even states.

So it was a shock to states when, in November 1953, Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. and the Department of Justice moved to intervene in the states’ water fight and aggressively staked a claim on behalf of tribes. Tribal water rights were “prior and superior” to all other water users in the basin, even states, the federal government argued.

Western states were apoplectic.

Arizona Gov. John Howard Pyle quickly called a meeting with Brownell to complain, and Western politicians hurried to Washington, D.C. Under political pressure, the Department of Justice removed the document four days after filing it. When Pyle wrote to thank the attorney general, he requested that federal solicitors work with the state on an amended version. “To have left it as it was would have been calamitous,” Pyle said.

The federal government refiled its petition a month later. It no longer asserted that tribes’ water rights were “prior and superior.”

The letter from Gov. Howard Pyle of Arizona to Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr. after the U.S. filed an initial petition in Arizona v. California stated that tribal water claims are “prior and superior” to all others on the river. Western governors led by Pyle requested a meeting with the AG immediately, asking him to pull the petition, which he did.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

When details of the states’ meeting with the attorney general emerged in court three years later, Littell, the Navajo Nation’s attorney, berated the Department of Justice for its “equivocating, pussy-footing” defense of tribes’ water rights. “It is rather a shocking situation, and the Attorney General of the United States is responsible for it,” he said during court hearings.

Arizona’s legal representative balked at discussing the meeting in open court, calling it “improper.”

Experts told ProPublica and High Country News that it’s impossible to quantify the impact of the federal government’s failure to fully defend tribes’ water rights. Reservations might have flourished if they’d secured water access that remains elusive today. Or, perhaps basin tribes would have been worse off if they had been given only small amounts of water. Amid the overt racism of that era, the government didn’t consider tribes capable of extensive development.

Jay Weiner, an attorney who represents several tribes’ water claims in Arizona, said the important truth the documents reveal is the federal government’s willingness to bow to states instead of defending tribes. Pulling back from its argument that tribes’ rights are “prior and superior” was but one example.

“It’s not so much the three words,” Weiner said. “It’s really the vigor with which they would have chosen to litigate.”

“It is rather a shocking situation, and the Attorney General of the United States is responsible for it.”

Because states succeeded in spiking “prior and superior,” they also won an argument over how to account for tribes’ water use. Instead of counting it directly against the flow of the river, before dealing with other users’ needs, it now comes out of states’ allocations. As a result, tribes and states compete for the scarce resource in this adversarial system, most vehemently in Arizona, which must navigate the water claims of 22 federally recognized tribes.

In 1956, W.H. Flanery, the associate solicitor of Indian Affairs, wrote to an Interior Department official that Arizona and California “are the Indians’ enemies and they will be united in their efforts to defeat any superior or prior right which we may seek to establish on behalf of the Indians. They have spared and will continue to spare no expense in their efforts to defeat the claims of the Indians.”

A 1953 telegram to the Arizona Interstate Stream Commission, which prepared the state’s case against California, notifying them that “prior and superior” had been removed.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Western states battle tribal water claims

As arguments in the case continued through the 1950s, an Arizona water agency moved to block a major farming project on the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ reservation until the case was resolved, the newly uncovered documents show. Decades later, the state similarly used unresolved water rights as a bargaining chip, asking tribes to agree not to pursue the main method of expanding their reservations in exchange for settling their water claims.

Highlighting the state’s prevailing sentiment toward tribes back then, a lawyer named J.A. Riggins Jr. addressed the river’s policymakers in 1956 at the Colorado River Water Users Association’s annual conference. He represented the Salt River Project — a nontribal public utility that manages water and electricity for much of Phoenix and nearby farming communities — and issued a warning in a speech titled, “The Indian threat to our water rights.”

“I urge that each of you evaluate your ‘Indian Problem’ (you all have at least one), and start NOW to protect your areas,” Riggins said, according to the text of his remarks that he mailed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Riggins, who on multiple occasions warned of “‘Indian raids’ on western non-Indian water rights,” later lobbied Congress on Arizona’s behalf to authorize a canal to transport Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. He also litigated Salt River Project cases as co-counsel with Jon Kyl, who later served as a U.S. senator. (Kyl, who was an architect of Arizona’s tribal water rights strategy, told ProPublica and High Country News that he wasn’t aware of Riggins’ speech and that his work on tribal water rights was “based on my responsibility to represent all of the people of Arizona to the best of my ability, which, of course, frequently required balancing competing interests.”)

While Arizona led the opposition to tribes’ water claims, other states supported its stance.

“We thought the allegation of prior and superior rights for Indians was erroneous,” said Northcutt Ely, California’s lead lawyer in the proceedings, according to court transcripts. If the attorney general tried to argue that in court, “we were going to meet him head on,” Ely said.

Department of Justice attorney William Veeder wrote this memo to get sign off from the attorney general for the revised petition that deleted the “prior and superior” language.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

When Arizona drafted a legal agreement to exclude tribes from the case, while promising to protect their undefined rights, other states and the Interior Department signed on. It was only rejected in response to pressure from tribes’ attorneys and the Department of Justice.

McMillen, the historian who compiled the documents reviewed by ProPublica and High Country News, said they show Department of Justice staff went the furthest to protect tribal water rights. The agency built novel legal theories, pushed for more funding to hire respected experts and did extensive research. Still, McMillen said, the department found itself “flying the plane and building it at the same time.”

Tribal leaders feared this would result in the federal government arguing a weak case on their behalf. The formation of the Indian Claims Commission — which heard complaints brought by tribes against the government, typically on land dispossession — also meant the federal government had a potential conflict of interest in representing tribes. Basin tribes coordinated a response and asked the court to appoint a special counsel to represent them, but the request was denied.

So too was the Navajo Nation’s later request that it be allowed to represent itself in the case.

Arizona v. Navajo Nation

More than 60 years after Littell made his plea to Kennedy, the Navajo Nation’s water rights in Arizona still haven’t been determined, as he predicted.

The decision to exclude the Navajo Nation from Arizona v. California influenced this summer’s Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Navajo Nation, in which the tribe asked the federal government to identify its water rights in Arizona. Despite the U.S. insisting it could adequately represent the Navajo Nation’s water claims in the earlier case, federal attorneys this year argued the U.S. has no enforceable responsibility to protect the tribe’s claims. It was a “complete 180 on the U.S.’ part,” said Michelle Brown-Yazzie, assistant attorney general for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice’s Water Rights Unit and an enrolled member of the tribe.

Trial transcripts from an Arizona v. California hearing in 1956.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

In both cases, the federal government chose to “abdicate or to otherwise downplay their trust responsibility,” said Joe M. Tenorio, a senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund and a member of the Santo Domingo Pueblo. “The United States took steps to deny tribal intervention in Arizona v. California and doubled down their effort in Arizona v. Navajo Nation.”

In June, a majority of Supreme Court justices accepted the federal government’s argument that Congress, not the courts, should resolve the Navajo Nation’s lingering water rights. In his dissenting opinion, Gorsuch wrote, “The government’s constant refrain is that the Navajo can have all they ask for; they just need to go somewhere else and do something else first.” At this point, he added, “the Navajo have tried it all.”

The federal government chose to “abdicate or to otherwise downplay their trust responsibility.”

As a result, a third of homes on the Navajo Nation still don’t have access to clean water, which has led to costly water hauling and, according to the Navajo Nation, has increased tribal members’ risk of infection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eight tribal nations have yet to reach any agreement over how much water they’re owed in Arizona. The state’s new Democratic governor has pledged to address unresolved tribal water rights, and the Navajo Nation and state are restarting negotiations this month. But tribes and their representatives wonder if the state will bring a new approach.

“It’s not clear to me Arizona’s changed a whole lot since the 1950s,” Weiner, the lawyer, said.

Anna V. Smith is an associate editor of High Country News. She writes and edits stories on tribal sovereignty and environmental
justice for the Indigenous Affairs desk from Colorado. @annavtoriasmith

Mark Olalde is an environment reporter with ProPublica, where he investigates issues concerning oil, mining, water and other topics around the Southwest.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Alone on the Range

In September 2016, with Tropical Storm Hermine bearing down on North Carolina, Kemp Burdette rented a single-engine plane and flew over Duplin County. Burdette, a riverkeeper with the environmental group Cape Fear River Watch, was worried that some of the local pig farmers might try to drain their manure lagoons before the rains hit, to prevent them from overflowing. Spraying waste is illegal right before storms because of the risk that runoff from saturated fields will contaminate waterways.

As he flew, Burdette estimated that he saw at least 35 farms spraying their fields. He took high-resolution, GPS-stamped photographs and videos documenting the apparent violations, and then filed a complaint with the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), hoping the iron-clad evidence would move the agency to act. He and his colleagues did the same a month later, just before devastating Hurricane Matthew. “This isn’t just one bad actor,” he said. “This was widespread—complete disregard for the rules.”

But, according to Burdette, DEQ told him that the GPS-stamped images were inadequate proof. “They were basically saying, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’” he says. “They can’t stand behind evidence collected by somebody else.” Nor did they have funds to make their own aerial surveys. For evidence, DEQ said it could only review the farms’ self-reported spray logs. And in November 2016, when Burdette and his colleagues followed up, they say, all public traces of their complaints had disappeared.

For years, North Carolina regulators shielded the identities of polluting farms, burying public complaints against them and leaving those who lived nearby with few avenues for redress. Neighbors said their complaints were going unheard. 

A joint investigation by The Guardian, Food & Environment Reporting Network, and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting backs up those residents’ assessments. In response to a public-records request, DEQ released only 33 public complaints against livestock operations in North Carolina from January 2008 to April 2018. Over the same period, other hog states have registered literally thousands.

And then, abruptly, the DEQ reversed that policy this spring, saying it had validated 62 complaints against animal operations over a six-month period and then posting them online. The offenders included 11 industrial hog farms, some of which had let their waste discharge into ditches and streams. The change of policy meant that state regulators had publicly documented nearly twice as many violations in the six months ending April 2019 than in an entire decade. What happened?


Interview on WNCU-Durham’s The Dirt with writer Barry Yeoman and FERN editor-in-chief Sam Fromartz.

The Bob Ivey Facility, located along the Neuse river in North Carolina. The waste lagoon is under water to the right of the buildings. Photo by Rick Dove, image courtesy of Cape Fear River Watch and Waterkeeper Alliance.

Raising hogs in North Carolina used to be a side gig to the real business of growing tobacco and cotton. Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, the industry exploded, with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on the state’s coastal plain housing up to 60,000 animals apiece. Most of the state’s 9 million pigs live indoors, their waste flushed through slats into open pits called lagoons. When the lagoons get too full, the waste is sprayed onto crop fields as fertilizer, though these manure pits have also overflowed and breached their walls, particularly during hurricanes, sending waste into streams and rivers.

As the industry grew, the state legislature protected it in numerous ways, even barring counties from zoning out hog farms during the key expansion years. But lawmakers couldn’t ignore the mounting hog waste, particularly when it polluted waterways.

In 1997, the legislature imposed a temporary moratorium on new farms using lagoon-and-sprayfield systems: in 2007 it made the moratorium permanent, essentially capping the number of hog farms at around 2,300. But existing industrial farms were allowed to continue business as usual, despite widespread evidence that they were fouling the rural landscape and making for noxious neighbors.

“It smells like a body that’s been decomposed for a month,” said Rene Miller, a retired truck driver from Duplin County, the heart of hog country. Sundays after church, her family used to gather under the oak tree beside the house. They danced, played checkers, and ate fried chicken, collard greens, and corn. “That was my life back then,” she said. Now, with hog waste sprayed onto a field across the road, she stays inside with the air conditioner cranked up.

A study published in 2018 by the North Carolina Medical Journal concluded that families living near hog CAFOs saw higher rates of infant mortality and deaths from anemia, kidney disease, and tuberculosis. The researchers did not establish causality. Other studies have associated the state’s hog-farm emissions with asthma, elevated blood pressure, sleep disruptions, and depression.

A University of North Carolina study, from 2014, found these issues “disproportionately affect” people of color: African Americans are more than 1-1/2 times more likely than whites to live within three miles of an industrial hog operation in North Carolina. Latinos and Native Americans are also more likely to live near CAFOs.

The North Carolina Pork Council declined an interview request, but has in the past criticized the study from 2014.  It said the three-mile radius in the study captured too many people to be meaningful, and that co-author Steve Wing, an epidemiologist, was an outspoken hog-farm opponent. (Wing died in 2016.)

In comments submitted to DEQ last March, the Council also noted that the 2018 North Carolina Medical Journal study came from a research program at Duke University that received funding from a critic of factory farming.

The industry insists health concerns are exaggerated. “We don’t think these types of symptoms or things are going on in the communities where we do business,” Kraig Westerbeek, a senior director at Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer and the state’s dominant player, said in a deposition and in reference to an older study that found increased depression, anger, and confusion among neighbors who experienced hog-farm odors. “There are studies that can say almost anything,” he added. 


The moratorium on lagoons and spraying only applies to new farms. Meanwhile North Carolina’s legislators appear to have continued to protect existing farms and discourage neighbors from seeking help. In 2014, for example, they passed a law keeping complaints filed with the state environmental agency confidential unless the department “determines that a violation has occurred.” State Representative Jimmy Dixon, a sponsor, said the provision was designed to protect farmers from false accusations.

“We fully expect and desire to have any violations known and exposed,” the Duplin County Republican and semi-retired poultry farmer said in an interview. “But just to throw it wide open for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to make unsubstantiated claims, like some of the people do—we believe that there is an inherent expectation that I should be determined to be innocent until proven to be guilty.”

The confidentiality measure, part of a larger bill, passed with bipartisan support.

DEQ interpreted the law to require disclosure of a complaint only when there’s a formal violation notice or penalty, which the agency has historically been loath to initiate. “We believe [that] if they find a violation of the permit, they just tell the operator, ‘Hey, this doesn’t look right. You need to address it,’” said Elizabeth Haddix, managing attorney at the North Carolina regional office of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents some of DEQ’s critics. “They may not make any written record of that violation.” This is how, until recently, complaints vanished.

It also helps explain why the agency located only 33 complaint records for a period of more than a decade, when queried by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Other states with major livestock industries had far more: Nebraska provided 2,131 complaints; Georgia 5,652; and Texas 6,411. Iowa, the top hog producing state, provided 2,393.

The North Carolina Pork Council, in a 2019 letter to DEQ, said the “relatively minimal number of violations” in the state signaled “a robust and working regulatory system.” But even careful documentation hasn’t guaranteed enforcement in North Carolina. DEQ spokesperson Sharon Martin would not discuss the complaints filed by Burdette and his colleagues after the 2016 storms. She did acknowledge the animal-operations program “is underfunded due to the last decade of budget cuts.”


Feeling unprotected by regulators, North Carolinians living near hog farms have turned to the courts, with more than two dozen lawsuits by more than 500 plaintiffs, including Rene Miller, against Smithfield Foods’ hog-production subsidiary, which contracted with farmers to raise its animals.

Former hog farmer, Don Webb, of Stantonsburg, North Carolina, now deceased, was critical of the way hog farmers disposed of waste and made that clear on his briefcase. Photo by Alex Boerner.

Meanwhile others looked to the machinery of federal and state government to hold DEQ more accountable. In September 2014, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, and Waterkeeper Alliance filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights. It said that DEQ failed to consider the outsized harm to people of color when it issued that year’s permit governing nearly all large hog operations, violating federal civil-rights laws. The permit is issued every five years. 

The two sides agreed to mediation, which fell apart after five representatives of the North Carolina Pork Council and its national counterpart showed up at what the environmentalists call a confidential session. (They suspect DEQ employees tipped off the Pork Councils.) “That was unnerving,” said Naeema Muhammad, the Environmental Justice Network’s organizing co-director.

DEQ did not respond to questions about the mediation. In an email, Robert Brown, a publicist for the North Carolina Pork Council, said the mediation was “no secret” and that his client wanted “to engage in a constructive dialogue, recognizing that any resolution of the complaint would have a direct impact on Pork Council members.”

The Pork Council described the complaint as part of a “coordinated, multi-pronged attack on our farmers.”

After the mediation failed, EPA investigators visited North Carolina and interviewed more than 60 hog-farm neighbors. The residents described stenches so strong that it made them gag, vomit, and lock themselves indoors. Several also mentioned keeping silent, because “for more than 15 years, the government has been well aware of the conditions they have to live with, but has done nothing to help, so complaining to NC DEQ would be futile,” the EPA wrote in a letter to DEQ. Those who did complain reported “threats, intimidation, and harassment” by the industry.

Finally, in December 2016, advocates challenged the complaint problem head-on, filing a separate petition with the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings, alleging that DEQ had failed to investigate complaints against hog farms. The groups pointed to the photographic evidence of illegal spraying just before Tropical Storm Hermine and Hurricane Matthew and the later disappearance of those complaints.

This multifaceted campaign began to bear fruit in 2017, after a change of governors and leadership in North Carolina. Incumbent Republican Pat McCrory was replaced by Democrat Roy Cooper, and he appointed former Environmental Defense Fund official Michael Regan to head DEQ. “We all had high hope,” the Environmental Justice Network’s Muhammad said of the new administration.

Shortly after the inauguration, DEQ issued “notices of deficiency” to nine farms that had sprayed their fields right before Hermine, requiring the farms to take corrective action. These farms included five that Burdette said he photographed the previous September. DEQ based its findings on the farmer-reported logs.

The new DEQ leadership also sat down with the advocates and hammered out two settlements. In the EPA civil-rights complaint, DEQ agreed to tougher oversight in its permit for large hog operations. It would improve air and water monitoring, and would develop a mapping tool to analyze whether people of color were disproportionately harmed by its decisions. In the settlement, DEQ did not acknowledge wrongdoing.

In the other settlement, DEQ agreed to implement a new system for investigating complaints, and to post six months’ worth of data. The first posting covered November 2018 through April 2019, showing DEQ received 138 complaints and found 62 violations.

When it comes to how regulators handle complaints, “I think the settlement was a game-changer,” said Haddix.

But the results of these challenges to the industry have not been entirely positive. Take the lawsuits: On one hand, juries have returned five verdicts against Smithfield. The awards have ranged from $102,400 to $473.5 million, though the largest were dialed back under state law. But the legislature responded to the suits by limiting neighbors’ future rights to sue and collect damages. Dixon, who helped shepherd the legislation, called the lawsuits “an egregious grab of money” by attorneys.

Smithfield did not respond to interview requests. In an email, it called the largest award an “outlier verdict” and noted that appeals are pending.

More on this story
Read the first story in our series about large-scale livestock farming, on poultry price-fixing

Story was published by local news outlet, Charlotte Observer.

Barry & Sam Fromartz talked about the story on WNCU-Radio’s “The Dirt”

And DEQ declined to comment when asked if it had adopted a more aggressive policy. Advocates describe what Haddix calls a “bunker mentality” at the agency—a fear of appearing too proactive. 

For example, DEQ missed its own April 1 deadline for creating the mapping tool, which meant it couldn’t be used before the agency issued the 2019 five-year hog-farm permit. When advocates asked DEQ to issue a short-term permit until the tool could be developed, the agency balked. It said the tool was “educational” and “not intended for regulatory purposes.”

“What the hell good is a community-mapping program if it’s not going to slow down the degradation?” asked Muhammad. 

In May, DEQ posted a beta version of the tool. Haddix calls it flawed; for example, it doesn’t distinguish between large and small farms. DEQ’s Martin declined to discuss the tool.

Given the legislative climate, and lawmakers’ control over the state budget, environmentalists say they’re not surprised by the timidity at DEQ. “When I think of ‘agency capture,’ it’s not just a product of willful decisions not to enforce, or willful decisions to demonstrate favoritism to the industry,” says Will Hendrick, staff attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance. “Some of it is agency aversion to the risk that may result from taking action against an industry that is favored at the legislature.”

In calls and emails, DEQ’s Martin would not discuss the political climate or the threat of legislative backlash. Nor would DEQ officials be available for interviews.

“That is all I am able to provide at this time,” she wrote.

Updates story on Aug. 30, 2019 to elaborate on the 2018 North Carolina Medical Journal study, note Rene Miller’s participation in the lawsuits, and add that DEQ did not acknowledge wrongdoing in the EPA civil rights complaint. The photo caption of the briefcase was corrected to note that Don Webb, of Stantonsburg, North Carolina, is now deceased.

Produced by FERN, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, and The Guardian, a slightly shorter version of this article was first published by The Guardian. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.

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A new network of attorneys seeks to defend abuses of industrial agriculture. First up, Colorado.

Farmworkers often struggle to access healthcare. While working, they live in remote areas, sometimes with no personal vehicle. In Colorado, nothing in the law enshrined farmworkers’ rights to quality healthcare.

Until 2021.

That year, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the Agricultural Workers’ Rights bill into law in June. This law guarantees farmworkers have the right to contact “essential service providers” — health professionals, attorneys, consuls, and clergy members — during their breaks.

However, an industry group is challenging the law. The Colorado Livestock Association filed a lawsuit in June that focuses on the section of the law requiring employers to not impede farmworkers’ reasonable access to service providers during their off time. The group wants it ruled unconstitutional.

In the lawsuit, the Colorado Livestock Association requested the court declare the provision allowing key service providers access to its property violates employers’ rights to exclude people from their property.

“The State of Colorado has not paid just compensation for this (violation) nor initiated eminent domain proceedings to do so,” the organization said in court documents. This is the second time an organization tied to the state’s agricultural industry has challenged the law.

The Colorado Livestock Association did not immediately return a request for comment.

In response, a farmworker – identified as Jane Doe in court documents – and Colorado Legal Services, a nonprofit providing legal advice to low-income people in the state, filed a motion to intervene as defendants on Sept. 13.

Colorado Legal Services is receiving support and advice from a newly formed entity known as FarmSTAND, a nonprofit organization comprised of a national network of attorneys to represent communities affected by industrial agriculture. Towards Justice and Farmworker Justice are also involved in the lawsuit.

According to the organization’s press release, FarmSTAND seeks to concentrate resources — bringing lawyers and their expertise together — on certain cases that can set precedents, working in partnership with a broad base of local and national organizations.

“We try to support partners who are doing great work in this space to try to reform industrial animal agriculture and transform the food system,” said Kelsey Eberly, the FarmSTAND attorney counseling on the case.

A community with specific characteristics

An estimated 2.4 million people work on farms and ranches nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of agriculture. This population, mostly Latino, is roughly equal to the population of Chicago. About half are undocumented.

In Colorado alone, the agricultural industry employed 19,339 workers, experiencing a 5.7% growth in direct crop production jobs in 2022, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The farmworker community in Colorado constitutes 4.1% of the rural workforce.

Eberly emphasized the unique challenges faced by farmworkers.

“These workers are some of the most isolated and vulnerable,” she said.

Their remote residences and long and demanding work hours create significant barriers when seeking access to essential services, such as health professionals, that many other workers often take for granted.

Eberly also highlighted the importance of the existing law for farmworkers’ rights in Colorado for seasonal laborers who arrive to work on farms during the summer months and often find themselves entirely reliant on their employers for various aspects of their livelihood.

“They live at the place where they work, and they don’t have transportation necessarily, so the only way for them to get any help is for people to come to them,” she said. “That’s why this law is so important.”

Access to assistance becomes especially critical when workers have health issues, particularly given the challenges posed by the effects of climate change.

According to the National Institutes of Health, farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other sectors. One of the reasons is that this demographic group has a higher incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease.

There is little legislation to protect agricultural workers in the U.S.

“This Colorado Law was so groundbreaking, and why it’s so important to protect it,” Eberly said, “so that it can be used as a model for other states.”

The post A new network of attorneys seeks to defend abuses of industrial agriculture. First up, Colorado. appeared first on Investigate Midwest.