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A New Silence

On a recent weekend there were worldwide, youth-led strikes involving millions of people, against climate change. Some residents of the San Joaquin Valley, the worst air-quality zone in the nation, were discussing it around the kitchen table of Lydia Miller, president of the San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center, who began speaking of the obvious loss of wildlife in the Valley.

“You think Global Warming is bad? Wait till the same causes eliminate wildlife,‘ she said. “Billions of birds that used to fly and chirp in North American skies are no more.1.Robins, Finches, Mockingbirds, used to be deafening, now you hear chirping and you don’t hear crickets, frogs, grasshoppers anymore along Bear Creek in Merced.  Now there are no more Kingfishers, Grebes, Egrets, or Herons on the creek.  They aren’t there anymore. We live in the New Silence.”

But, except for very few like the members of the Raptor Center, which began its life in the late 1970s pioneering the breeding of California Condors in captivity, the Valley has always been silent about the destruction of Nature here or conformed to whatever agribusiness slogan ruled the day. “Farmers are the best stewards of the land.” “We farm. You eat.” “No water = No jobs.” “Stop politicians created water crisis.” “Congress created Dust Bowl.” Etc. But you won’t find a sign along the Interstate telling you that to grow one almond nut takes a gallon of water.

“In the midst of this current bird crisis,” Miller continued,  “Dove season in California started Sept. 1. The first half went until Sept. 15.  The second half will be open statewide from Nov. 9 through Dec. 23, 2019. Dove parents are still raising babies. Hatching is in August. They won’t leave the nest until October. Doves mate for life. When you kill a mate, the babies die.”

The Raptor Center led the protests against the old Dove season, all of September, but the best they could get was the present split season. The opening of Dove season is the largest hunting day in America.

“We’re so stupid,” Miller commented.  “But Dove season is a large source of revenue for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, what used to be the state Fish and Game. Who kills 12 oz. of feathers? It takes a real man or woman to kill a bird that yields only two tiny medallions of meat.

“Go fishing instead.”

The loss of one third of the bird population of North America – three billion birds — is so huge that whole gene pools have been obliterated.

“For example, whatever happened to the coots?” Miller said. “The bird loss is far worse in the San Joaquin Valley than one third. It’s closer to half. We’ve been rehabilitating Valley birds and wildlife for more than 40 years. We can tell just the way we can tell that it is going to be a cold, hard winter.

“But, when’s the last time you saw a quail in the wild here? How few quail are there compared to 30 years ago, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago?”

The San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center made a decision 42 years ago that the problems birds they were receiving had all resulted from their habitats or, more precisely, the losses of habitats of birds and wildlife that were occurring rapidly in the Valley. There is no greater cause of habitat loss in the Valley that the conversion of pastureland to orchards or vineyards. No governmental jurisdiction at the local, county, state or federal level will stand in the way of the conversion of pastureland habitat for wildlife to orchards, prepared by deep ripping the soil (tearing up the subsoil down to six feet deep), bringing up the hardpan like pieces of old pavement), In our part of the Valley, hardpan supports vernal pools and larger playas that are habitat for 15 endangered species. But the world wants more prime agricultural land to grow more almonds, 70-percent of which are exported for the enrichment of growers and seasonal jobs that dwindle with every mechanical/technological advance. This is how the “western Appalachia” was created and is maintained in poverty.

“Prime ag land can be made over and over by converting pastureland to orchard and vineyards,” Miller said. “All it takes is irrigation.”

The irrigation is provided by surface water when there isn’t a drought to dry up the reservoirs, and by wells dug deeper and deeper every year, over drafting aquifers throughout Central California. But orchards and vineyards are not good habitats for wildlife because farmers and massive perpetual public relations campaigns masquerading as science and education behind them hold as an article of Absolute Faith that farmers should suffer no losses in the field at all, period, ever. But. while farmers and other rural residents receive disaster payments from the government for damage from fires and floods, also caused by Global Warming, the insects, amphibians, reptiles and the young of all species receive no compensation from any government for burning to death or drowning. In fact, wildland firefighters are about the only people who ever talk about that except for people who rehabilitate wildlife.

On the west side of the Valley, farmers place cakes of poisons like arsenic for rodents and strychnine for birds. The poison is also flushed into the creeks and groundwater. The state and feds give farmers and ranchers depredation permits allowing them to kill migratory birds protected by international treaty. The Raptor Center once submitted a Public Records Act request for all the depredation permits in the Central Valley and found out they were killing whole gene pools of migratory birds and ground nesters and have major impact on all wildlife and aquatic life.

“That’s what’s wiping whole gene pools of ground nesters that need pasture,” Raptor Center President Miller said. “When’s the last time you heard a Meadowlark? Where are the Quail, Pheasants, many kinds of ducks? The agencies say the numbers are OK but all we’re really doing is concentrating wildlife on smaller and smaller patches of grasslands. We’re still losing. When you add hunting, which brings large revenues to resource agencies, you begin to see the larger dimensions of the problem,” she said.

“State Fish and Wildlife sponsors Pheasant hunts for young hunters, where the agency releases a bunch of birds raised in captivity that don’t know how to hide and don’t fly,” Miller said. “They are raising the fee-paying hunters-of-the-future to slaughter cage-raised, tame birds. The only danger is that the kids will  shoot each  other as some poor bird scampers between them.”

The government also issues depredation permits to farmers to hunt on their property, killing deer at night, killing feral pigs, squirrels, Mountain lions and Red foxes, kill every Coyote they find, and any other species they claim damages their crop or livestock in any way or might damage them.

“Department stores and supermarkets absorb losses – why can’t farmers accept losses?” Miller said. “Only farmers accept 0% losses. They have to accept some losses and share some with Nature. Nature is a child and we’re going to lose her.”

Lydia Miller’s Shrink and Damage Theory of Loss is that retail businesses absorb losses from shrinkage and damage. Only agriculture accepts 0% loss.

Another reason for loss of habitat is that the market-based solution the agencies came up with to save “land,” wildlife habitat and farms, didn’t work.  A federal and now a state system of mitigation banks is supposed to be able to sell credits from these banks at market prices to developers to mitigate for the destruction of natural habitat in the course of development. The banks have been surveyed for species and have agreed to a perpetual conservation easement on their land.

The only problem with the program is that it is corrupt. For example, several years ago a developer was compelled by the US Fish & Wildlife Service to buy more than 90 credits from a mitigation bank that had land that was habitat for San Joaquin Valley Kit Foxes to compensate for his illegal take of Kit Fox habitat in Santa Nella.  At the market rate, the price was more than $1 million. The developer whined to congressmen in two states and staff of the Sacramento office of the Service settled the developer’s account to the mitigation bank for $130,000. So much for the famous “market-based” solutions for environmental destruction. Neither the federal or the state governments are the least bit interested or capable of managing a “free market” in mitigation credits or anything else. Nor should they be. What they should be doing is enforcing their environmental law and regulation regardless of pressure from developers and their bought legislators.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife refuges have become in some cases — Kesterson in Merced County for example — outdoor slaughterhouses for wildlife. In the Kesterson case, the Service allowed concentrated agricultural field runoff and subsoil drainage from the west side of the Valley to flow into the wetlands at Kesterson, creating a toxic soup that killed birds and other wildlife, particularly amphibians, weakened egg walls and produced deformed babies. It also caused cancer and birth deformities among the surrounding human population and harmed livestock grazing nearby. Other Service wildlife refuges are sprayed with toxic pesticides and, in another remarkable example, an Elk preserve was established at Rocky Flats, CO, a designated Superfund Site on grounds where nuclear weapons were previously produced. Perusing the Internet for five minutes yields two pages of stories about federal government use of toxic pesticides on refuges.

Needless to say, the corruption has reached perverse levels with Trump’s appointments of two ex-lobbyists to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is a former coal-company lobbyist; DOI Secretary David Bernhardt is a former lobbyist for Westlands Water District, largest irrigation district in the world serving 700 west side San  Joaquin Valley farmers on 600,000 acres. On August 18, 2018, Environmental News Service reported:

“The Trump administration’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reversing a 2014 ban on the use of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides and genetically modified crops that trigger greater pesticide use across the national wildlife refuge system.”

Bernhardt’s federal Bureau of Reclamation recently proposed that Westlands should receive a perpetual water allotment of federally subsidized water rather than having to negotiate periodically, a public process that has allowed critics of the ruinous agribusiness in its service area to metastasize from row crops to permanent orchards and vineyards. The Bureau also proposes to nearly double the amount of Westlands’ allotment of 1.2 million acre feet.3.

Another truly remarkable example of abuse of authority – or perhaps  it was just hubris — on the refuge system occurred on the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge when the refuge manager decided to have a field of the very rare Delta Coyote Thistle, in full bloom, bulldozed to make a pond that would a picturesque backdrop and attraction for duck he could then photograph. The manager was more interested in his reputation as a duck photographer than as a wildlife-refuge manager. The employee he ordered to arrange the tableau  told the Raptor Center instead. When Ms. Miller and other members of the Center arrived at the refuge, the bulldozers were ready to remove the dirt containing the rare thistle. Miller called Merced Sun-Star reporter, Rose Certini. The paper’s headline on the story was “Rare Plant, Raptor Center Concerned.”

“The manager went nuts,” Miller said. “We got the Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon and the Sierra Club and we foiled his plot.”

Another remarkable example of bird slaughter in Merced County was the Carpenter Fish Farm case. Rather than install netting over the open ponds of catfish, Carpenter hired teenagers to shoot the Herons, Egrets, Grebes, Seagulls, Pelicans and other fish-eating birds. The schools even offered credits for this experience in practical ecology. Carpenter buried the birds in large holes. Somehow, a videotape appeared of backhoes, their buckets overflowing with dead birds (necks dripping over the edge of the bucket), which went viral on local and national television on opening day of the national Dove Season, largest hunting day in the nation.  Mr. Carpenter was fined went to prison and the fish farm eventually closed. At the time Carpenter’s fish farm was flourishing, both state and federal agencies did not net their hatcheries and shot the birds attracted to the sites.

But the Raptor Center did not escape unscathed. The agencies charged with enforcing laws against what Carpenter was doing in his wholesale slaughter were embarrassed and conducted a brutal investigation of the Center that last two years and could have also led to a prison term if they had been able to find anything incriminating. One of the worst things a member of the public can do is to publicly embarrass a resource agency by showing that they are not doing what they are required by law to do.

The ignorance of farmers is a complicated topic. Most of them are brainwashed into conformity by the time they finish high school by their USDA-sponsored education in 4-H and Future Farmers of America. Higher education will make them even more prone to believe what the USDA, the Farm Bureau and their commodity-association executive directors tell them to believe, as more education elevates them in their particular agricultural power structure. They seem to think by approved slogans only.

But some kinds of farmer ignorance remain mysterious, for example, this incident in the local Community Alliance for Family Farming a few years ago. Community Alliance of Family Farmers in our area hired a director from Belize, who proudly showed a video of her parents farming. It was slash and burn agriculture. CAFF didn’t get the problem.

And we have had a health problem for decades with poor people who hunt catfish, turtles and frogs in areas the agencies have posted as dangerous for pregnant women, etc. Catfish and other bottom feeders have every chemical put on the landscape and washed into the creeks and rivers. But the fishermen say, “We gotta eat.”

“Man is encroaching on Nature with poisons, bulldozers grading,’ Miller said. “We are so bad to Nature. In our gardens we use Roundup, Triaizicide, even Sevin, a notorious bee killer, for gardeners stupid enough to want to kill honey bees. What we want to know is what is wrong with pulling a weed or picking up a snail or some other bug by hand. Collectively we have forgotten how to tell the difference between insects that are beneficial or harmful to  our gardens. We rely on pesticide labels instead. What happens is that we chemically taint the food we eat from our own backyard gardens, defeating the whole purpose of homegrown vegetables.

“And,” Miller said, “There is another topic that needs real discussion:  neighborhood wildlife. It’s OK to feed raccoons, possums and squirrels. They are also Nature. We are an awful society. We can’t even share a little cat food with local raccoons and possums and the feral pets left behind by the foreclosed on and the evicted.

“Now, ‘scientists report a loss of a third of the birds in North America,’” Miller said. “This report suffers from the usual problem: scientists always underestimate for reasons of public policy, in other words from corporate and political pressure. ‘Scientists’ have been saying for decades that ’95-percent of California wetlands gone. But for all those decades, there has been more and more conversion of pastureland to orchards and vineyards and more residential construction. The most accurate reports used to come from the airplane pilots because they could see agricultural and residential development encroachment and illegal takes of wildlife habitat.

“We had to use atropine as an antidote for raptors sprayed by crop dusters,” Miller said. “The agencies’ approach? They wanted us to draw the raptors’ blood. We took them to the veterinarians instead. The Raptor Center was the only rehab operation in the state that recognized the danger coming from loss of habitat. It’s hard for rehabbers to go against the agencies that hold their permits. The rehab centers get tied into the academic and agency science machine and its mania of numbers, for extremely thorough documentation of the decline of species without any thought of how to slow or stop it,” Miller said.

“Why are private citizens thrust into the role of the public defenders of wildlife: the researchers, fact gatherers, activists and litigators that have to challenge the agencies to do the job that are charged by federal and state law to do: enforce environmental law and regulation?” she said.  “Where are the agencies? They don’t enforce the law, they don’t litigate on behalf of the wildlife, they are just political tools who will tell you they work for the congressmen or the governor or the president – for anyone but the people of the United States or California and the laws they have enacted. The Public Trust doctrine is their ultimate nightmare because it reveals the emptiness of their lives, the corruption of their functions, the lies they tell every day. None of the recovery plans they spent years and millions of dollars developing are working. Trump puts lobbyists for industry at key power positions at EPA and DOI. These appointments violate the spirit of the law and the law that government officials cannot act with even the appearance of corruption.

“Another prime example from our area of how the state and federal resource agencies continue to negotiate away the conservation values they are charged by law to defend is UC Merced,” she said. “Among all the orchestration behind ramming through an environmentally ruinous project on top of the richest region of vernal pool habitat for 15 endangered species in the state, our prize for legal perversion goes to the University of California for putting every reputable environmental attorney in Northern California on retainer so that none of them could represent anyone opposing the project in court. But, from starting construction without environmental permits to the teams of agency staff in Sacramento charged with corrupting environmental law and regulation to get the project through, to the bribery and corrupting of the Merced Sun-Star by becoming its largest advertiser, to city and county planning staff designing phantom newtowns surrounding the campus to the city subsidizing the campus sewer and water, to the bussing of the county’s third graders with UC Merced promotional T-shirts to line the corridors of the state capitol – the whole absurdity of lawless development on behalf of a university. What a joke!” she said.

“And Merced College was knocking down Swallow nests,” Miller said. “At the beginning of the Great UC Merced Campaign,  the City tried to remove Turkey Vultures with cherry bombs when they migrated to Merced and roosted on eucalyptus trees lining a bike path in the middle of a street. And they lied about everything connecting them with the complaints that caused them to do it. Pigeons, Starlings, English Sparrows are all in steep decline because the agencies don’t regard them as worth saving.”

“Here in Merced we are right in the middle of it, the corruption of local, state and federal government enforcement of environmental law and regulation,” Miller said.

“Finally,” she said, “what about the International Migratory Bird Treaty that is supposed to provide some protection for birds that migrate from Russia to Chile and places in between every year? The west side of the Valley is right in the middle of their route.” 3.

Notes.

1. A new study from Cornell University used weather radar data as one tool to track bird populations in the United States and Canada since 1970. They found that the overall bird population dropped from 10 billion to 7 billion.” —- Child’s, Weather.com, 9-19-19

2. Westland’s contract would give it permanent claim to enough water to supply more than 2 million California households, although federal suppliers in practice typically divvy up water each year based on available supply. Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press, Nov. 8, 2019

3. International Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Migratory_Bird_Treaty_Act_of_1918

 

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