On this last day of June, a look at health, environment, and science news from our other blogs:

Dough for "no" on cap-and-trade: 3,446,089 very compelling reasons that some legislators voted against Waxman-Markey.

Starry night: In Afghanistan, US troops on a night mission. Green tank, breathtaking skyscape, one cool photo.

Unscientific American: Does McCain really not understand or use the Internet? Well, uh, you see...

 

No, Blue Marblers, "Island Fox" is not the name of a new reality TV series. It's one of many names for a tiny, adorably fuzzy fox that lives on six of the eight California Channel Islands. The Island Fox, also called the Island Gray Fox because of its descent from mainland gray foxes, weighs only 5 lbs as an adult and is just now recovering from near extinction.

The Island Fox has lived on the Channel Islands for thousands of years, with each island evolving its own subspecies. All the Island Foxes were thriving until the 1990s, when changes in the local ecosystem had a disasterous chain effect on the species. DDT poisoned fish, which in turn poisoned the Islands' native bald eagles. The bald eagles' population decline opened up turf for non-native golden eagles who were attracted by the Islands' feral pigs. Once on the Islands, the golden eagles found Island Foxes easy prey since the foxes never had a predator, much less one that struck from above. In addition, sheep and other livestock had eaten much of the protective scrub and grasses foxes might have used for cover. Golden eagles quickly decimated the foxes. On one island, the fox population plummeted from 450 animals to 15 in just a few years.

To bring back the species, the National Park Service instituted a number of measures. Firstly, they removed golden eagles and re-introduced native bald eagles. Secondly, the Service created an ambitious captive breeding program, which you can learn more about here. And thirdly, the department is working on totally eradicating feral pigs so that golden eagles do not come back. Through this multimillion-dollar, multi-pronged approach, the National Park Service has been successful in bringing the Island Fox back from the brink of extinction in record time.

Now that Island Fox populations are recovering, the diurnal animals can be seen on the Islands living naturally. The foxes eat mostly fruit, insects, and deer mice and are devoted parents. They mate for life, having two to three pups per litter. Foxes communicate not only with body language, but with growls and short, high-pitched barks. Although they are now the subjects of active conservation, the foxes remain federally endangered. To learn more about the Foxes, and learn more about their history, you can visit the National Park Service's page here or visit a conservancy organization here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

 

It's partly the florid language that makes me and some other Westerners uneasy.

"Arizona, the New Frontier! Armed with an abundance of sunlight, Arizona is the land of sunshine and opportunity."

That palaver could have been lifted from a 19th Century swindler's sheet, written to separate greenhorns from their golden coins. But, in fact, I just cut-and-pasted it from the Bureau of Land Management's current website. The BLM controls vast areas of the West, (68% of Nevada, 40% of Utah, 17% of Arizona) and is pitching the opportunities for "solar development companies, or 'prospectors'" in the old New Frontier of the American Southwest.

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (who oversees the BLM) designated 670,000 acres in six Western states as Solar Energy Study Areas. The Las Vegas Sun described these tracts of BLM desert lands as being "on a fast track for development" as giant solar power farms. To ensure that permits are issued quickly, Salazar announced that the BLM will open four new offices in California, Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming.

Now, I know we need to kick our addiction to fossil-fuel. And I also believe that using renewable energy sources like solar and getting serious about energy conservation are keys to a livable future. But I'm also aware of our history of "development" -- the Western spin-cycle of boom and bust, hope and despair, professed love of the land and simultaneous destruction of it.

Sandy Bahr knows all of this, too. But, she says, "Maybe this time we can get it right."

Bahr is the director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, an organization which was working on land use issues before Arizona was a state. "We don't need to get into those old conflicts this time," she says.

There's plenty of "disturbed" land in the West, she points out. Why not build renewable energy power plants on the scars left by the old polluting ones? Why not recycle abandoned agricultural land that should never have been cultivated and let solar power companies buy water-depleting farms and use that land (some forms of solar power plants are water intensive, but still need less than agriculture)?

Transmission lines, which can interfere with migrating wildlife, don't have to be a problem either, Bahr says. Route them alongside freeways, which already prevent animals from crossing.

There are cultural and human rights issues to consider, as well.

During a BLM sponsored public hearing on solar development in California in 2008, Carmen Lucas, a member of the Kumeyaay Nation, told the Bureau that before anything was built in his area, someone from the Kumeyaay community would need to examine the area to make sure it wasn't an ancient burial site. The "need for speed," he told the BLM, must not be allowed to trump Native people's rights.

Over the next several months, the BLM will be making siting decisions for these new solar mega-plants. That, says Bahr, is when we'll see how committed to meaningful change the nation really is.

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.

Big Pharma pulled off a first-class PR coup last week with its widely celebrated pledge to support health care reform by offering up a package of discounts they claim will run to $80 billion over the next ten years. The highlight of the package, said to be worth about $30 billion, is a 50 percent discount offered to old and disabled people who fall into the "donut hole," the notorious coverage gap in the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, which leaves some of us paying as much as $3,000 out of pocket for our meds.

Announcing the agreement, President Obama hailed the drug-makers for offering "significant relief" to a "continuing injustice that has placed a great burden on many seniors," and for helping to reach "a turning point in America's journey toward health care reform." AARP, the mammoth old people's lobby, was right there at Obama's shoulder, with head man Barry Rand trumpeting that industry's progress: "This is an early win for reform and a major step forward. It is a signal the process is working and will work." The deal was also seen as a victory for Senate finance committee chair Max Baucus (D-MT), who engineered negotiations in his self-assigned role as champion compromiser in the reform debate. But the real triumph belongs to the drug companies themselves, since the supposedly magnanimous offer is just what we might expect it to be, considering the source: another wolf in sheep's clothing from Big Pharma.

When it comes to securing their interests against even the flimsiest of threats, the drug-makers' pockets appear bottomless. A look at last week's Center for Responsive Politics report on the industry offers an awe-inspiring view of the druggies in action: To begin with, we're not talking about a handful of lobbyists twisting the arms of members of Congress. Pharma had 1,814 flacks at work last year and 1,309 in the first 3 months of this year. That's 12 percent of all the lobbyists in Washington. Last year alone the drug industry spent $234 million on lobbying. In the first three months of this year, it spent more than $66.5 million—$1.2 million a day. And that doesn't include polling, advertising, and research. Among the top recipients of Pharma funds are several members of the Senate finance committee, including Baucus himself, who have positioned themselves as a "coalition of the willing" dedicated to promoting a bipartisan middle ground on health care reform—in other words, minor changes that won't seriously affect private sector profits.

I'm Back

New York City was lovely, thanks for asking.  But imagine my surprise when I came back and discovered that my absence meant twice the usual amount of catblogging last Friday.  That's above and beyond the call of duty from David Corn, who was filling in for me while I was gone.

Needless to say, I really was on vacation.  My catblogging post was written last Tuesday and showed up on Friday via the miracle of prescheduled posting.  Don't believe me?  Here's a nice picture of the Statue of Liberty at sunset to prove that I was in the Apple this weekend.  Still not enough?  I also have some lingering inner ear wobbliness thanks to flying with a cold, which I plan to use as an all-purpose excuse for the rest of the week if I write anything unusually off kilter.

Anyway, this is just a placeholder to let everyone know I've returned safely, full of good deli and Italian food.  Blogging on matters of actual substance will resume Tuesday morning.

Amid an unsettling report today of Tamiflu resistance in a Danish A(H1N1) patient, comes a study in The New England Journal of Medicine tracing the swine flu's 90-year evolution.

The current flu strain has genetic roots in an illness that sickened pigs at a swine show in 1918 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A near-century of development since then may include this flu's accidental resurrection from an extinct strain.

Here's what likely went down. At the same time the 1918 flu pandemic was spreading among humans, pigs were hit with a similar respiratory illness. Early experiments confirmed the 1918 swine virus and a human strain emerged about the same time.

According to the authors of the new paper, there was a temporary "extinction" of this strain of virus from humans in 1957. But then it reemerged 20 years later in a small 230-person outbreak in 1976 among soldiers in Fort Dix, New Jersey. That outbreak did not extend beyond the military base.

However the next year H1N1 reemerged in people in the Soviet Union, Hong Kong, and northeastern China. The genetic origin of that 1977 strain turns out not to be the 1976 Fort Dix strain. Instead, it was closely related to a 1950 human strain.

Which means that given the genetic similarity of the two strains, reemergence was likely due to an accidental release during laboratory studies of the 1950 strain that had been preserved as a "freezer" virus.

Ouch. Hate it when that happens.

The authors hypothesize that concerns about the Fort Dix outbreak stimulated a flurry of research on H1N1 viruses in 1976, which led to an accidental release and reemergence of the previously extinct virus a year later. The reemerged 1977 H1N1 strain has been circulating in various seasonal influenzas ever since—including today's.


Or maybe it wasn't such an accidental a release? Conspiracists, restart your engines.
 

Most people accept that politicians do stupid things in the service of parochial interests and paleolithic ideologies. It's a problem as old as Congress. Yet occasionally a Congressman does something beyond stupid--something that causes thinking people to wonder if this representative has the intelligence or integrity to serve in public office. These moments are like ice sheets splitting off the Arctic Shelf and sliding into the ocean--they're fun to watch and yet totally depressing.

Today's example comes from Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla), who has ordered a Congressional investigation into how the EPA "suppressed" a report that questioned the science behind climate change. Grist notes that the "suppressed" report was written by an economist with no training in climate science, includes no original research, cites old and irreputable references, and was nonetheless accepted, unsolicited, by the EPA's climate scientists for consideration. If the meagreness of the report's policy impact is a scandal, then so is the fact that Joe the Plumber isn't the go-to guy for rewiring your attic.

And yet Inhofe tells Fox News that this EPA economist, Alan Carlin, "came out with the truth" and that "they don't want the truth at the EPA." Inhofe really could be this stupid, or there could be a deeper, more cynical political logic at work. Fox concluded that "the controversy is similar to one under the Bush administration--only the administration was taking the opposite stance." Fox's message to its readers seems to be that the legitimate James Hansen scandal and the phony Alan Carlin "scandal" cancel each other out. It's all just politics.

If you believe that, how do you decipher the truth behind climate change? One way would be to start with what you already think you know and then look for those scientists--or economists posing as scientists--who support that position. Last week Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga) claimed that global warming was a "hoax"--a statement, impossible to back up with more than partisan intuition, that was met with applause on the House floor.  It must have been quite a spectacle: A big chunk of legislators, smaller than in years past but still frozen in their beliefs, taking a jolly plunge into insanity.

 

 

Over at Slate, Richard Hasen claims that the Supreme Court's call for reargument of Citizens United v. FEC is a prelude to the Roberts Court overturning Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the decision that allowed limits on corporate spending in elections.

Some people believe that the influence of money in politics is, in Larry Lessig's words, "not the most important problem, [but] the first problem,"—the problem we have to deal with before we can properly fix any of our other problems, just as an alcoholic needs to fix her alcoholism before she can fix her other, bigger problems. It almost goes without saying that turning a firehose of corporate money towards politicians' campaign coffers would be akin to offering an alcoholic unlimited free drinks.

President Obama joined Secretary of Energy Steven Chu Monday in announcing new regulations designed to cut carbon emissions and energy use with efficient technology, along with $346 million from the stimulus bill for efficiency research.

The regulations specifically target lighting, which the Department of Energy says consumes seven percent of all energy we use. While compact-fluorescent bulbs and incandescent lighting aren't the most inherently exciting subjects, the DOE says the new regs will curb 594 million tons of CO2 and eliminate the need for 14 coal-fired power plants—over the next 30 years.

While 594 million tons is a huge chunk of carbon, over the next thirty years it will equate to less than one half of one percent of our total carbon footprint. Americans regularly emit around 15.6 trillion pounds—about 78 billion tons—of carbon every year. In other words, the energy department's plan is a step in the right direction, but it's a minuscule one.

The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade energy bill passed the House of Representatives 219-212 on Friday. OpenSecrets notes that the legislators who voted against the bill received, on average, twice as much money from the energy sector than those who voted for it. Just another day on the Hill.