How to Restore a Million Acres of Strip-Mined Land? Bring in the Elk
By Mason Adams
The camera wasn't where it was supposed to be. Clad in chest waders and camouflage, Kyle Hill stepped into the pond, reached into the shallow water, and lifted it from the post where it had been mounted. "They got it pretty good," he said.
A few hundred yards away were the culprits: Rocky Mountain elk, lurking at the interface between scrubby woods and sparse grassland. Overhead, patches of clouds moved briskly across a blue November sky in southwest Virginia. The sheared ground of this former strip mine was unnaturally flat and a sharp contrast to the crinkled mountain ridges of late-autumn brown that stood layer upon layer on the horizon. The animals were slowly fading into the pine and autumn olive, leaving just one who boldly remained in the open — a large bull with antlers reaching more than three feet from its head.
Hill is a senior environmental science major at the University of Virginia's College at Wise. He was here with biology professor Wally Smith to study the impact of the elk in the area.
These elk are members of a herd released onto the site of a former strip mine outside the town of Grundy in Buchanan County, Virginia. They're part of a larger population now spread across Central Appalachia, where the ungulates are at the center of a pioneering new environmental and economic landscape on the literal remnants of Central Appalachia's coal industry. It's the kind of habitat that elk prefer — open country, with grasses, forbs, and low shrubs, and pockets of wooded areas. Elk once were native to these mountains, but the population was driven to extinction by habitat loss and overhunting.
This land has been mined by multiple companies for decades. A sign on the gated road into the property reads, "Dominion Coal Company, Mine #10." It's from an earlier mining operation, with underground mines burrowing deep into the earth. More recently, Paramont Coal Co. removed the mountaintop to get at the coal beneath the surface, leaving behind a flat terrain covered in grass, scrub, and pine.
That's how mountaintop-removal mining works — blowing up the top few hundred feet of mountain to expose coal seams. After the coal is stripped, mine companies are legally required to do some restoration, which usually involves replacing the exploded soil and rock — rubble — covering it with a layer of topsoil, and seeding it with anything that will hold the ground together. Even under optimal conditions, mountaintop removal severely disrupts the ecology and environmental quality of large sites. A 2016 Duke University study found the technique has left parts of Appalachia 40 percent flatter.
Central Appalachian communities are burdened with more than a million acres of these flattened mountains, many of which have been restored on the cheap. Faced with the quandary of what to do with these problematic lands, several states have used them as reintroduction sites for elk in hopes of enriching the habitat for diverse animal species. And the hopes that follow involve some economic revival in coal country from tourist dollars spent by wildlife watchers and, eventually, hunters.
Guide Leon Boyd pulled up in a truck to join them. He'd been up the ridge getting a different camera back online. That tower-mounted camera streams to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website.
Boyd is a vice president at an oil and gas drilling company in nearby Vansant who has become a local champion for elk restoration. He heads up the Southwestern Virginia Coalfields Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a group of volunteers that partners with Game and Inland Fisheries and other agencies to restore the 2,600-acre former strip mine site by seeding it with native plants, improving the soil, removing invasive species, and generally trying to create ideal wildlife habitat.
Hunters were happy, and so were biologists. "We started making more open areas that had a lot of autumn olive and locust, and seeding them with orchard grasses and clovers," Boyd said.
"The number of white-tailed deer and black bear and turkey we see come in and utilize those food sources is amazing. That's what's got the wildlife biologists so excited."
By breaking up the otherwise forested landscape and creating ponds and other wetlands, these open grasslands attract insects, amphibians and migratory songbirds.
Wildlife restoration is just one of the new uses of about 1.5 million acres of Central Appalachian land affected by strip- and mountaintop-removal-mining since the 1970s. Other communities have turned their land into sites for solar energy farms, outdoor recreation hubs, industrial parks and more. A coalition of advocacy groups recently released a list spotlighting 20 different projects at reclaimed mines in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.
Elk have proven a powerful draw for Central Appalachian communities, especially since the effort engages hunters, who have historically proven to be a powerful group when it comes to funding conservation efforts.
But elk restoration also has its downsides.
Many former strip mines are reclaimed with the goal of stabilizing the ground so that it doesn't all run off with a heavy rainfall. Remnants of the rock and soil removed to expose coal are replaced with new material that's graded and seeded, often with nonnative species like autumn olive, which is known for holding soil. As a result, soil on reclaimed mine sites tends to be tightly compacted, which makes it difficult for vegetation to take root. A 2008 study published in the journal Ecological Applications found that reclaimed mine land was poorer in nutrients, had more severe storm runoff, and resulted in major changes to vegetation, wildlife and soil structure.
Despite habitat improvement efforts, the landscape is covered with broom sage, a sign of poor soil fertility. One of the few running streams on the site flows out from one of the old deep mines. Yet wildlife is showing up. Mason Adams
Despite habitat improvement efforts by Leon Boyd and other volunteers, the landscape is covered with broom sage, a sign of poor soil fertility. One of the few running streams on-site flows out from one of the old deep mines.
Yet wildlife is showing up. It's not just elk, but songbirds, dragonflies, damselflies, bullfrogs and waterfowl.
Jennifer Franklin, a professor in the University of Tennessee's Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, said elk damage trees and keep the landscape more open, which "is bad if you want to grow timber, but good if you are a golden-winged warbler."
"The main impact of elk is on the vegetation, although the development of soils and vegetation go hand in hand," Franklin said. "Elk could improve the soil organic matter by defecating on the site, but at the same time, some studies have found that elk grazing can increase soil compaction and reduce some soil nutrients.
"They also bring in soil microorganisms and seeds because they frequently move between the forest and reclaimed mine site. This could help to reestablish soil biota and nutrient cycling on soils that were initially void of microorganisms after reclamation."
A 2011 study by John Cox, a wildlife ecology and conservation biology professor at the University of Kentucky, suggested that elk are a keystone species that "act as habitat modifiers through grazing, trampling, wallowing, and uprooting of existing vegetation."
Sometimes that habitat modification can benefit other species, as in the case of an elk wallow becoming a small wetland used by waterfowl, said David Kalb, a biologist with Virginia's Game and Inland Fisheries department.
"Restoration into meadows creates opportunities for elk on the landscape, but also for these less common or rare birds that need that habitat to take advantage of it," Kalb said. "A whole host of amphibian species that need small vernal pools can take advantage of the small ponds and wallows that elk create."
But that activity can also disrupt local ecologies by causing erosion and transporting invasive plants.
"On the edge of surface mines, elk have created wide movement paths as they enter and exit forests during their daily activities," Cox wrote in his study. "In these areas, erosion is readily visible, where soils have been excavated by trampling hooves, particularly on steeper slopes."
Research has confirmed that elk disturb soil in areas where they are bedding, resulting in less soil moisture, less leaf litter and less vegetation. By disrupting the natural ecological succession toward hardwood forest, however, they're also creating spaces for other wildlife.
"It's a double-edged sword with elk," Cox said. "They're back doing the work they're supposed to be doing in the landscape, even though it's a denatured sort of alien landscape in some ways. These grasslands are providing habitat for grassland bird and shrub-scrub species that are declining in the U.S. Now migratory warblers are coming in. The elk help maintain that."
One reason Leon Boyd's elk cameras are important is to get the elk herd before a worldwide audience. The camera's accompanying website links to a public comment form for the state's proposed 10-year elk management plan for the herd in Dickenson, Wise and Buchanan counties. The plan includes guidelines for growing the elk population before opening it to hunting. Another reason for keeping the camera going: Livestreamers might eventually decide to come view the elk in person.
Wildlife viewing has become a pillar in the growing outdoor recreation industry of many Central Appalachian communities in the aftermath of coal's dominance.
Places gifted with beautiful scenery see outdoor recreation as a path toward rebuilding their economies. The welcome signs in Buchanan County, for instance, bill it as "Nature's Wonderland."
Elk restoration adds another attraction to the marketing of the region as an outdoor destination.
"The elk viewing tours are one of about six things that we really kind of publicize as our adventure offerings, including zip line, mountain bike and e-bike rentals, whitewater rafting trips, guided adventure hikes, and rock climbing," said Austin Bradley, superintendent at Breaks Interstate Park, which is located on the Kentucky–Virginia state line.
Breaks started offering elk-viewing tours in 2015, three years after the Virginia elk population was introduced. In 2018, about 400 people went on elk tours, Bradley said, including free trips for school groups, economic development professionals, and elected officials.
"For a really long time, this park and this entire region were so heavily focused on mining," Bradley said. "Even here at the park, the coal miners came in and ate at our restaurant, they camped at our campground, and coal companies had large employee appreciation events in the summer and Christmas parties in the winter. All that dried up. We were really getting in some pretty dire straits.
"But that outdoor recreation and adventure tourism focus to reach a broader audience has definitely paid off. We'll set a revenue record this year. The elk help us reach a broader audience."
Across the state line in Kentucky, elk have had an even more transformative effect on mountain economies.
The Bluegrass State began studying elk reintroduction in the 1990s, released its first herds in 1997, and opened hunting in 2001. Kentucky has seen its elk population in the 16-county region grow from 1,541 introduced animals to more than 10,000. About 10 percent of the area is reclaimed and active surface mines.
A 2013 study from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources estimated that hunters spend $1.9 million annually in the elk region. Licenses and permits bring another $800,000. These figures don't factor in nonconsumptive users, such as wildlife watchers.
"If you go to places like Louisville or Paducah or Lexington, $1.9 million is nice, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to other revenue sources," said Steven Dobey, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's conservation program manager for the eastern U.S. "But when you go to eastern Kentucky and that 16-county elk zone, and spread that over gas stations, hotels, hunting stores, that does have a significant economic impact."
A study on five Tennessee counties where elk populations have been restored counted about $10.25 million in total economic value.
As Hill and Smith set up the last of their wildlife cameras, the weather had started to turn. The temperature had dropped, and clouds coalesced overhead and started to spit cold rain.
Boyd recounted hunting and wildlife-watching stories.
He clearly believes in the restorative power of the elk. He described a group of birders he'd brought to the site who expected the former strip mine to look like a moonscape. At one point in time it did. But by the end of the day, he said, the most skeptical birders were the most enthusiastic, gushing about the 27 species they'd seen that day.
"You've just got to get out and see the site," Boyd said. "Then you'll really understand it."
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
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On Monday and Tuesday of the week that President Donald Trump held his first rally since March in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the county reported 76 and 96 new coronavirus cases respectively, according to POLITICO. This week, the county broke its new case record Monday with 261 cases and reported a further 206 cases on Tuesday. Now, Tulsa's top public health official thinks the rally and counterprotest "likely contributed" to the surge.
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By Tim Radford
German scientists now know why so many fish are so vulnerable to ever-warming oceans. Global heating imposes a harsh cost at the most critical time of all: the moment of spawning.
Nearing the Brink<p>Since <a href="https://climatenewsnetwork.net/abundant-fish-need-cool-seas-and-protection/" target="_blank">fish in the temperate zones already experience a wide variation</a> in seasonal water temperatures, it hasn't been obvious why species such as <a href="https://climatenewsnetwork.net/sardines-swim-into-northern-waters-to-keep-cool/" target="_blank">cod have shifted nearer the Arctic, and sardines have migrated to the North Sea</a>.</p><p>But <a href="https://climatenewsnetwork.net/ocean-warming-spurs-marine-life-to-rapid-migration/" target="_blank">marine creatures are on the move</a>, and although there are other factors at work, including overfishing and <a href="https://climatenewsnetwork.net/fish-cant-smell-well-in-more-acidic-seas/" target="_blank">the increasingly alarming changes in ocean chemistry</a>, thanks to ever-higher levels of dissolved carbon dioxide, temperature change is part of the problem.</p><p>The latest answer, Dr Dahlke and his colleagues report in the journal <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aaz3658" target="_blank">Science</a>, is that many fish may already be living near the limits of their thermal tolerance.</p><p>The temperature safety margins during the moments of spawning and embryo might be very precise, and over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, marine and freshwater species have worked out just what is best for the next generation. Rapid global warming upsets this equilibrium.</p>
By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach
The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.
When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.
We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.
Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.
What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.
Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.
To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.
Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.
The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.
Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.
Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?
The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.
Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome
While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.
It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.
Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.
Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.
Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.
Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.
Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
One of the initial reasons social distancing guidelines were put in place was to allow the healthcare system to adapt to a surge in patients since there was a critical shortage of beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment. In fact, masks that were designed for single-use were reused for an entire week in some hospitals.
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By Jake Johnson
Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.
"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."
The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."
In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."
"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."
Today the 6 Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces are unveiling final language. The Climate Task Force accomplished a gr… https://t.co/gz3broq2qe— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)1594240617.0
The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.
Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."
"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."
Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."
"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.
On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.
Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.
"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."
We rein in #pharma's greed by: 1) Allowing Medicare to FINALLY negotiate Rx drugs FOR ALL AMERICANS 2) Using Rx d… https://t.co/6k9iUCLMp7— Abdul El-Sayed (@Abdul El-Sayed)1594238411.0
Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."
Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."
"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."
"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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