‘Incredible’ news for bears and wild horses as US shifts preservation plans | National parks

Wildlife advocates are celebrating “incredible” news for the preservation of threatened bears, and a herd of historically significant wild horses, in separate north-western and upper midwestern national parks.

In North Dakota, the National Parks Service (NPS) has dropped a plan that would have seen about 200 wild horses, descended from those belonging to Native American tribes who fought the 1876 Great Sioux war, rounded up and removed from Theodore Roosevelt national park.

The scheme would have stripped the park of a cultural “emblem” of the future 26th US president’s time as a cattle rancher and hunter in the Dakota territory in the late 19th century, said the Republican North Dakota senator John Hoeven, who helped secure their preservation.

Meanwhile, in Washington, NPS has partnered with US Fish and Wildlife on a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem. The threatened species has not been seen in the area for more than a quarter-century.

Between three and seven bears will be released into the park each year in the groundbreaking project that could last up to a decade, with an ultimate aim of building back a healthy population of about 200 bears within six to 10 decades.

“Our national parks are spectacular places that people expect to be set aside for wildlife, they expect wildlife to be there,” said Graham Taylor, north-west program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

“It’s why we have multiple wilderness areas in the North Cascades, it’s why we have big pristine national parks. They are supposed to be managed to protect their resources in perpetuity, and grizzly bears, all wildlife, are a resource of the parks.

“For one generation to have wildlife, and the next generation not, is not how they’re supposed to be managed, so this really is the park service following their mission by protecting and trying to restore lost resources.”

The dropping of the NPS plan to eliminate wild horses from the North Dakota park, and reverting to a pre-existing management plan for a “healthy herd”, follows a significant public backlash to its 2022 “livestock review”.

The animals, directly descended from those ridden by Sioux chiefs in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, had “the potential to damage fences used for wildlife management, trample or overgraze vegetation used by native wildlife species, contribute to erosion and soil-related impacts … and compete for food and water resources”, an environmental assessment found.

Hoeven, and North Dakota’s Republican governor, Doug Burgum, became powerful allies to the preservation campaign, with the senator adding a funding provision to the 2024 interior and environment budget bill signed by Joe Biden.

“These wild horses are emblematic of President Theodore Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota, a formative experience that shaped his presidency and lasting legacy,” Hoeven said in a statement.

“Given the broad public support for maintaining the wild horses, as well as the measure we passed through Congress, this is the right call by NPS.”

Similar positive public sentiment helped drive the approval of the plan for grizzly bears in Washington, campaigners say. The proposal was first floated in 1996, the last time there was evidence of the species in the 790 sq miles national park, dropped by the administration of Donald Trump, and revived when Biden took office in 2021.

“This is incredible news,” said Kathleen Callaghy, north-west representative for Defenders of Wildlife’s species conservation and coexistence department.

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“The North Cascades is one of the most incredibly intact wild lands in the US and the grizzly bear is last major mammal missing from that ecosystem, so we’d be restoring something to almost as close as we can make it to how it used to be, barring our presence.”

She said human encounters with the bears, however, were unlikely.

“It’s natural to be worried about an apex predator living potentially near humans, but people mostly misunderstand how incredibly large the North Cascades is, and how much of that land is not settled,” she said.

“We’ve seen in Montana and other areas, in Yellowstone, that bears can coexist perfectly well with humans as long as everyone is taking sensible precautions like removing garbage and carrying bear spray during hikes.

“But three to seven bears per year over all those square miles, your chances of being a hiker and encountering one are not very high.”

Native American tribes also helped push the process forward. Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit tribe, said its members “celebrate this decision for the great bear, the environment, and everyone who desires a return to a healthy Indigenous ecosystem.

“We urge the agencies to move forward and put paws on the ground so the recovery may begin,” he said.

Taylor, of the NPCA, said the reintroduction process would face challenges. “Things happen, there’s no guarantee. Wildlife restoration and rewilding are tough, and there are still humans out there and other hazards,” he said.

“So identifying some good bears to bring is part of it. We don’t want bears that have any history of conflict, we’re not taking other regions’ conflict bears and moving them here. We want well-behaved, young and mostly female bears that will drive the population and tend not to migrate very far.”

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EPA to ban most uses of chemical linked to dozens of deaths | US Environmental Protection Agency

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Tuesday that it will ban most uses of methylene chloride, a colorless liquid used for stripping paint, cleaning metal, and even decaffeinating coffee. The chemical has been linked to dozens of deaths and advocates have long called for its ban.

The new rule will require stronger worker safety protections from the harmful carcinogen for the remaining “critical” uses. All consumer use will be prohibited within a year, while most commercial and industrial use will be phased out within the next two years.

“Exposure to methylene chloride has devastated families across this country for too long,” said the EPA administrator, Michael Regan. “EPA’s final action brings an end to unsafe methylene chloride practices, ensuring no one in this country is put in harm’s way by this dangerous chemical.”

The EPA previously banned the sale of methylene chloride as a paint stripper back in 2019. A known carcinogen, methylene chloride can also cause neurotoxicity, liver damage, and in acute cases, death. Since 1980, at least 88 people have died from severe exposure to the chemical.

Most of those who died were workers who used methylene chloride for stripping paint or refinishing bathtubs. Through inhalation and skin contact, long-term exposure is associated with multiple cancers including lung, breast, brain, and cancer of the blood.

“Science has told us for decades about the dangers of methylene chloride,” said Wendy Hartley, who’s been pushing for stricter regulations of the chemical since 2017, when her 21-year-old son Kevin Hartley died from acute exposure from refinishing a bathtub at work. “I knew that there was nothing that I could do to bring my son back, but I was determined to do everything that I could to try to prevent others from experiencing the hell that my family had gone through.”

The ban unveiled on Tuesday is estimated to take 50% of the methylene chloride off the market. But the agency is not banning all uses, such as in the case of producing refrigerant chemicals, batteries for electric vehicles, plastic and rubber manufacturing, as well as use-critical military and other federal use.

“I wish these protections had been in place earlier, because for many families they’re coming too late,” said the EPA assistant administrator Michal Freedhoff.

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The EPA rule does not extend to uses regulated by another agency like pharmaceuticals and food, which are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Methylene chloride is commonly used to decaffeinate coffee. When applied directly to the beans, the solvent binds to the caffeine and removes it. Earlier this year, the Environmental Defense Fund petitioned the FDA to remove the chemical from the process of producing decaffeinated coffee.

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Man who allegedly kicked bison in Yellowstone park arrested for incident | National parks

A man who allegedly harassed bison at Yellowstone national park by kicking one of the animals was injured in return and arrested in the first such encounter at the famed site this year.

Officials said on Monday that police received a report about a man kicking a bison in the leg and being injured by one of the animals about seven miles from the park’s entrance, near Seven Mile Bridge, on 21 April.

It is not uncommon for tourists who get too close to the wild animals to be hurt. Park officials have reported injuries each year at the national park, which is hugely popular with tourists.

The last such case involving a bison was in July 2023, when a 47-year-old Arizona woman was gored during mating season after she turned to walk away. In 2022, a woman who approached a bison near the Old Faithful geyser was tossed 10ft into the air and was gored.

The man’s injuries from 21 April were not described. Upon being notified of the most recent case, police said they arrested Clarence Yoder, 40, in the town of Yellowstone, Montana.

Yoder, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, was charged with disorderly conduct, approaching wildlife, disturbing wildlife and being intoxicated “to a degree that may endanger oneself”, police said.

A companion who was allegedly driving Yoder, 37-year-old McKenna Bass, also of Idaho Falls, was arrested on counts of drunk-driving, failure to yield and disturbing wildlife.

Both men subsequently pleaded not guilty in court.

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National Park Service officials said visitors to Yellowstone should stay at least 25 yards (23 meters) away from all large animals, including bison, elk, bighorn sheep, moose and coyotes.

Tourists should be even more cautious around bears and wolves, with officials advising visitors to maintain a distance of at least 100 yards (91 meters) from those creatures in particular.

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Great Barrier Reef’s worst bleaching leaves giant coral graveyard: ‘It looks as if it has been carpet bombed’ | Great Barrier Reef

Beneath the turquoise waters off Heron Island lies a huge, brain-shaped Porites coral that, in health, would be a rude shade of purplish-brown. Today that coral outcrop, or bommie, shines snow white.

Prof Terry Hughes, a coral bleaching expert at James Cook University, estimates this living boulder is at least 300 years old.

“If that thing had eyes it could have looked up and watched Captain Cook sail past,” he says, back on the pristine beach of this speck of an island 80km offshore at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

It is not just Heron’s grand old bommie that is freshly bleached. The surrounding tangle of staghorn corals, or Acropora, are splashed in swathes of white, or painted a dappled mosaic of greens and browns that betray the algae and seaweeds growing over the freshly killed coral. Hughes estimates 90% of those branching corals are dead or dying.

Terry Hughes inspects the coral around the Heron Island research station

Snorkelling above these blighted coral thickets evokes the imagery of forests annihilated by bushfires, or cities obliterated by missiles.

“It looks as if it has been carpet bombed,” says the Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who has accompanied Hughes to Heron. “Like limbs strewn everywhere.”

Even Hughes, a man who has witnessed as much mass mortality of coral as any, looks shellshocked.

The Dublin-born, Townsville-based marine biologist already knew the coral ringing Heron had just experienced its worst recorded bleaching – and that this was no isolated event.

Last month the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority released a report warning that the reef was experiencing “the highest levels of thermal stress on record”. The authority’s chief scientist, Dr Roger Beeden, spoke of extensive and uniform bleaching across the southern reefs, which had dodged the worst of much of the previous four mass bleaching events to blight the Great Barrier Reef since 2016.

Hughes saw in the institute’s aerial surveys results the most “widespread event and severe” bleaching event to date, not just in the south, but across much of the entire system – which stretches 2,300km up the Queensland coast.

But none of these metrics, it seems, could truly prepare him for the act of bearing witness to the unfolding calamity he has dedicated his life to preventing.

“It’s fucking awful,” the softly spoken scientist says, emerging from the ocean. “They said the bleaching was extensive and uniform. They didn’t say it was extensive, uniform and fucking awful.

“It’s a graveyard out there.”

Hughes and Green senator Peter Whish-Wilson inspect the coral using a viewing tube

Lethal hot water

The academic director of the University of Queensland research station on Heron, Dr Selina Ward, doesn’t mince words either. She describes this as “the year from hell”.

Storm surges washed away some of her favourite stands of corals, there have been outbreaks of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish, cyclones and floods. But these “multiple assaults” pale compared with this most “horrendous bleaching”.

The bleaching peaked in February and March. At the end of March, Ward visited 16 sites around Heron and nearby reefs, including around One Tree Island – a scientific reserve with “the maximum level of protection you can get”.

“It was terrible, the worst bleaching event I’ve ever seen,” she says. “In those 16 sites, every single one was severely bleached – and some of the corals were starting to die already.”

Her big question, though, is what is happening under the water right now.

Corals bleach when sustained exposure to warmer than average water causes them to expel the photosynthetic algae that give them colour – and from which the corals polyps obtain much of their nutrients.

A coral can die or recover from bleaching. The weeks that follow a bleaching event are a brief window in which scientists like Ward and Hughes can assess how many corals have starved without their symbiotic algae. In a few months, those newly dead corals will be covered in weed and beginning to be broken down into barren rubble piles – the time and cause of their demise will become more and more obscured.

The reef is now in that window, Ward says, where scientists can get into the water and observe the amount of bleached corals that – though left more vulnerable to disease and less fertile – might just regain colour and pull through. As well as those that will not.

But bleaching is only one coral reaction to what Hughes says is perhaps better described as a hot water event. Some corals will simply “cook”. Others turn a vivid blue or neon yellow – a garish shade our research vessel’s skipper says has been widespread on the corals around Heron.

These, though dazzling, are also disconcerting – this fluorescence is a protein corals produce as a kind of sunscreen. It is not a very effective defence though. According to Hughes, most of these neon corals won’t survive.

“The irony is that it looks beautiful in death,” Whish-Wilson says of a fluorescent coral while he and Hughes wade through knee-deep water as the tide recedes around Heron and coral tips emerge from the water like bones.

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Heron Island from the air

The unseen national emergency

After the summer of 2023-24, the Great Barrier Reef is awash in cruel irony and dissonance. The first strikes the traveller to Heron as its Islander catamaran departs its berth and rounds a canal into Gladstone’s harbour.

A hulking and rusty bow is slowly revealed as a bulk carrier connected, by crane-like loaders, to great mounds of crushed black earth. Behind it, another ship is being loaded with coal. And another behind that.

Then, as the catamaran rounds Curtis Island, it ducks and weaves its way through bulk carrier after bulk carrier, lurking outside the harbour like a school of sharks at the edge of a reef. On his phone’s shipping app, Hughes lists 43 of the steel leviathans.

Bulk carriers moored offshore near Gladstone wait to pick up coal shipments

Whish-Wilson says the flotilla speaks to a government having “a bet each way”.

“But you can’t have a future for fossil fuels and a future for a healthy reef,” he says. “You just can’t.”

Later, reflecting on a trip he already feels will haunt the rest of his life, the Greens healthy oceans spokesperson says this devastating bleaching should trigger Unesco to declare the Great Barrier Reef’s world heritage values as “in danger” and demand a visit from the federal environment minister, as well as a declaration of national emergency.

If this were a bushfire raging across thousands of kilometres, he says, that declaration would already have been made.

“But because it is in the ocean, it is out of mind, out of sight.”

Slim hope of recovery

Another of Heron’s incongruities is that, even amid such underwater devastation, it still harbours breathtaking beauty. Green sea turtles cruise above stands of broken coral, giant coral trout open their mouths and gills for electric blue cleaner wrasse, manta rays glide gracefully through the shallows.

Hughes first came here as a postdoctoral researcher in 1985 and has often returned. Now, as he prepares to leave Heron once more, he ponders the future of a natural wonder of the world to which he has given so much of his life.

A turtle shelters among bleached and dead staghorn coral

The 67-year-old has seen the coral ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef degrade and knows that they are on the inexorable path of further decline. Yet, if global heating can be limited to well below 2C on pre-industrial levels, Hughes still believes it is possible to stabilise sea temperatures and allow those corals that survive to mount a slow recovery.

It is not a question of hope or resignation, he says, but “immediate action”.

Unless fossil fuel emissions are cut “ASAP”, he says, the corals of the world’s reefs will be replaced by something else, perhaps seaweed or sponges.

“There would still be a tropical ecosystem here,” Hughes says with a sweep of his hand. “But at some point we would have to say it is no longer a coral reef. We’d have to call it something else.”

So when will Hughes return to Heron to see what, if anything, recovers? Will he check on that grand old bommie, now snow white?

“I’m not sure I will come back,” he says.

Hughes, left, onboard a research station inflatable

And why not? To this, a long pause, as Hughes looks away and out at the ocean, the only sound a choked sob and the haunting wail of the black noddies that brood and swarm on this troubled coral cay.

“’Cause it’s so upsetting,” he says, eventually.

Not that Hughes plans on staying silent.

“I think scientists like me need to be as vocal as possible,” he says. “To show people what’s happening.”

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North Carolina child’s ‘monster in the closet’ was in fact 50,000 bees in the wall | Bees

A toddler told her mom that “monsters” were in her closet. But in fact, there were more than 50,000 bees there.

A mother of three children under four years old was met with a “terrifying” surprise after she and her husband investigated why a handful of bees had flown into the attic of the couple’s North Carolina home.

After a visit by a pest control company and multiple beekeepers, a thermal camera finally revealed where the bees had gone – to a massive hive they had built inside the wall of her daughter’s room, where the girl was convinced she had heard a monster of some kind lurking.

“At first, I thought it was a body,” Ashley Massis Class told People magazine recently. “I was like, ‘What is that?’ And he says he thinks it’s a hive.”

For roughly eight months, a swarm of endangered honeybees had been building a hive inside the wall of her daughter’s room.

The beekeeper “didn’t even have his bee gear on yet, but he took a hammer and knocked into the wall”, Massis Class recalled. “Bees came swarming out like a horror movie.

“There were streams of bees, and the wall where he hit was oozing honey. But it looked like blood because it was really, really dark, running down my daughter’s pink walls. It looked really strange.”

Beekeepers ultimately removed tens of thousands of bees over several extractions, and a honeycomb weighing more than 100lb.

The bees were relocated to a bee sanctuary. Massis Class first documented the experience on TikTok, where her story went viral and caught the attention of news outlets.

After the extractions, Massis Class reassured her daughter that “Mr Monster Hunter”, as the toddler called the beekeeper, was removing all the bees. She also reassured her daughter that, after many months, the family now believed her.

There was, in fact, a kind of monster in her wall.

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In addition to the work to remove the bees, there will also be repairs to Massis Class’s home. The bees and their oozing honey caused about $20,000 worth of damage to electrical wires, which the family homeowner’s insurance will not cover.

The timing of their bee encounter was a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, Massis Class and her husband had a baby before discovering the bees.

Yet Massis Class told People that meant the couple was on leave from work.

“I’m really thankful my husband and I are on leave right now and that we can deal with this situation,” she remarked. “But at the same time, hearing the sound of humming bees on the other side of a door is kind of terrifying.”

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Revealed: Tyson Foods dumps millions of pounds of toxic pollutants into US rivers and lakes | Environment

Tyson Foods dumped millions of pounds of toxic pollutants directly into American rivers and lakes over the last five years, threatening critical ecosystems, endangering wildlife and human health, a new investigation reveals.

Nitrogen, phosphorus, chloride, oil and cyanide were among the 371m lb of pollutants released into waterways by just 41 Tyson slaughterhouses and mega processing plants between 2018 and 2022.

According to research by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the contaminants were dispersed in 87bn gallons of wastewater – which also contains blood, bacteria and animal feces – and released directly into streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands relied on for drinking water, fishing and recreation. The UCS analysis, shared exclusively with the Guardian, is based on the most recent publicly available water pollution data Tyson is required to report under current regulations.

The wastewater was enough to fill about 132,000 Olympic-size pools, according to a Guardian analysis.

Four blue diagrams of a swimming pool, with one cut into a quarter. Below is a satellite map of the greater New York City area, with a blue rectangle overlaid, covering more than the area of Manhattan.

The water pollution from Tyson, a Fortune 100 company and the world’s second largest meat producer, was spread across 17 states but about half the contaminants were dumped into streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands in Nebraska, Illinois and Missouri.

The midwest is already saturated with nitrogen and phosphorus from industrial agriculture – factory farms and synthetics fertilizers – contributing to algal blooms that clog critical water infrastructure, exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma, and deplete oxygen levels in the sea causing marine life to suffocate and die.

Yet the UCS research is only the tip of iceberg, including water pollution from only one in three of the corporation’s slaughterhouses and processing plants, and only 2% of the total nationwide.

The current federal regulations set no limit for phosphorus, and the vast majority of meat processing plants in the US are exempt from existing water regulations – with no way of tracking how many toxins are being dumped into waterways.

“There are over 5,000 meat and poultry processing plants in the United States, but only a fraction are required to report pollution and abide by limits. As one of the largest processors in the game, with a near-monopoly in some states, Tyson is in a unique position to treat even hefty fines and penalties for polluting as simply the cost of doing business. This has to change,” said the UCS co-author Omanjana Goswami.

The findings come as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must decide between robust new regulations that experts say would better protect waterways, critical habitat and downstream communities from polluting plants – or opt for weaker standards preferred by the powerful meat-processing industry.

A 2017 lawsuit by environmental groups has forced the EPA to update its two-decade-old pollution standards for slaughterhouses and animal rendering facilities, and the new rule is expected by September 2025. The agency has said that it is leaning towards the weakest option on the table, which critics say will enable huge amounts of nitrates, phosphorus and other contaminants to keep pouring into waterways.

“The current rule is out of date, inadequate and catastrophic for American waterways, and highlights the way American lawmaking is subject to industry capture,” said Dani Replogle, an attorney at Food and Water Watch. “The nutrient problem in the US is at catastrophic levels … it would be such a shame if the EPA caves in to industry influence.”

The meat-processing industry spent $4.3m on lobbying in Washington in 2023, of which Tyson accounted for almost half ($2.1m), according to political finance watchdog Open Secrets. The industry has made $6.6m in campaign donations since 2020, mostly to Republicans, with Tyson the biggest corporate spender.

“We can be sure Tyson and other big ag players will object to efforts to update pollution regulations, but the EPA should listen to communities whose wells, lakes, rivers and streams have been contaminated and put people over corporate profits,” said Goswami.

“Meat and poultry companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with EPA’s effluent limitations guidelines,” said Sarah Little from the North American Meat Institute, a trade association representing large processors like Tyson. “EPA’s new proposed guidelines will cost over $1bn and will eliminate 100,000 jobs in rural communities.”

Tyson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The American Association of Meat Processors said the EPA’s one-size-fits-all approach could put its small, family-owned members out of business.

A grid of colored squares. Most are blue, a small grouping at the top are yellow, and an even smaller portion is outlined in red.

Nebraska is a sparsely populated rural state dominated by agriculture – an increasingly consolidated corporate industry which wields substantial control over the economy and politics, as well as land and water use.

Millions of acres in Nebraska are dedicated to factory farming, with massive methane-emitting concentrated animal feeding operations (Cafos) scattered among fields of monocropped soybean, corn and wheat – grown predominantly for animal feed and ethanol. Only a tiny fraction of arable land is dedicated to sustainable agriculture or used to grow vegetables or fruits.

Tyson’s five largest plants in Nebraska dumped more than 111m lb of pollutants into waterways between 2018 and 2022, accounting for a third of the nationwide total. This included 4m lb of nitrates – a chemical that can contaminate drinking water, cause blood disorders and neurological defects in infants, as well as cancers and thyroid disease in adults.

Tyson’s largest plant is located in Dakota City on the Missouri river – America’s longest waterway which stretches 2,300 miles across eight states before joining the Mississippi. It’s a sprawling beef facility, which generates a nauseating stench that wafts over neighboring South Sioux city, known locally as sewer city, where many plant workers live. (Another beef processing plant is located next to Tyson.)

Earlier this month, the Guardian saw multiple trucks waiting to offload cattle for slaughter – after which the carcasses are rendered, processed and packaged in different parts of the facility. The plant produces vast quantities of wastewater which is stored (and treated) in lagoons on the riverbank, before being released into the Missouri river which provides drinking water for millions of people.

The Dakota City plant is a major local employer and Tyson’s single largest polluter, dumping 60m lb of contaminants into waterways between 2018 and 2022, according to UCS analysis.

Every year in November around 30,000 Sandhill Cranes begin their annual migration from the North Platte River in Nebraska to Southern Arizona. Photograph: Christopher Brown/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

“This Tyson plant helped put me through college and supports a lot of migrant workers, but there’s a dark side like the water and air pollution that most people don’t pay attention to because they’re just trying to survive,” said Rogelio Rodriguez, a grassroots organizer with Conservation Nebraska, which is part of a coalition pushing for stronger state protections for meat processing plant workers.

“If regulations are lax, corporations have a tendency to push limits to maximize profits, we learnt that during Covid,” said Rodriguez, whose family works at the plant. A deadly Covid outbreak at the Dakota City plant in April 2020 sickened 15% of the workforce and led to substantial community spread.

A few miles south of the Dakota City Tyson plant, the Winnebago tribe is slowly recuperating and reforesting their land, as well as transitioning to organic farming.

“We’re investing a lot of money to look after the water and soil on our lands because it’s the right thing to do, yet a few miles north the Tyson plant lets all this pollution go into the river. Water is our most important resource, and the Missouri river is very important to our culture and people,” said Aaron LaPointe, a Winnebago tribe member who runs Ho-Chunk Farms.

The water problem – and lack of accountability – goes beyond Tyson.

Last year Governor Jim Pillen, whose family owns one of America’s largest pork companies, was widely criticized for calling a Chinese-born journalist at Flatwater Free Press a “communist” after she exposed serious water quality violations at his hog farms. Earlier this month, the Nebraska supreme court ruled that the state environmental agency could charge the same investigative news outlet tens of thousands of dollars for a public records request about nitrates.

Big ag’s influence on state politics is “endemic”, according to Gavin Geis from Common Cause Nebraska, a non-partisan elections watchdog.

“The big money spent on lobbying and campaigns by corporate agriculture has played a major role in resisting stronger regulation – despite clear signals such as high levels of nitrates in our groundwater and cancers in rural communities that we need more oversight for farmers across the board,” said Geis.

“We’ve created a system with no accountability that doesn’t protect our ecosystem – which includes the land, water and people of Nebraska,” said Graham Christensen, a regenerative farmer and founder of GC Resolve, a communication and consulting firm. “The political capture is harming our rural communities, we’re in the belly of the beast and need help from federal regulators.”

Indigenous Americans lived and farmed sustainably along the Missouri River until white colonial settlers forcibly displaced tribes, and eventually dammed the entire river system – mostly for energy and industrial agriculture. Today, major river systems like the Missouri River – and its communities – face multiple, overlapping threats from dams, the climate crisis, overuse and pollution.

Oxygen depleting contaminants like nitrogen and phosphorus from Tyson plants in the midwest have been shown to travel along river-to-river pathways, causing fish kills and contributing to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. When the river is drier due to drought or high temperatures, pollutants become more concentrated and can form sediments – which are then dislodged during floods and taken miles downstream.

Global heating is making extreme weather increasingly common, and as droughts dry up underground aquifers, tribes will probably need to turn to the Missouri for drinking water, according to Tim Grant, director of environmental protection for the Omaha tribe. “We’re very concerned about what’s in the river, it’s an important part of our culture and traditions,” said Grant, who has started testing the fish for toxins.

A segmented blue and gray bar chart.

The UCS research also found Tyson plants located close to critical habitats for endangered or threatened species – including the whooping crane, the tallest and among the rarest birds in North America.

There are currently only 500 or so wild whooping cranes – up from 20 birds in the 1940s – which stop to feed and rest along a shallow stretch of the Platte River, a tributary of the Missouri in central Nebraska, as they migrate between the Texas Gulf coast and Canada. The majestic white birds feed in the cornfields that surround the Platte River, outnumbered by the slate gray sandhill cranes that also migrate through Nebraska each spring.

Tyson’s sprawling Lexington slaughterhouse and beef processing plant is situated less than two miles from the Platte River – among four federally designated critical habitats considered essential to conservation of the whooping crane.

“The cumulative effects of exposure to these industrial toxins could pose a long-term threat to the cranes’ food sources, reproductive success and resilience as a species,” said George Cunningham, a retired aquatic ecologist and Missouri River expert at Sierra Club Nebraska.

“Poor environmental regulation is down to the stranglehold industrial agriculture has on politics – at every level. It’s about political capture.”

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Should Australia go nuclear? Why Peter Dutton’s plan could be an atomic failure – video | Environment

Year in, year out, there’s a good chance someone in politics has suggested nuclear power as an answer to Australia’s energy problems. Guardian Australia’s Matilda Boseley explains why. Modern-day nuclear energy is climate friendly compared with coal and gas. But going nuclear isn’t practical for Australia – and it’s an idea that’s more than likely coming directly from the Coalition’s ‘delaying action on climate change’ handbook

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How do we define climate responsibility? Woodside has no answer | Adam Morton

Australia’s south-west is suffering through a historic dry stretch. Perth had the lowest rainfall on record in the six months to March, and trees in eucalyptus forests and scrubland across a 1,000 kilometre stretch are dying in shocking and spectacular fashion, with spillover effects through the ecosystems that rely on them.

The climate signal – the impact of rising atmospheric greenhouse gases, largely due to the burning of fossil fuels – in this part of the world has been clear for a while. Winter rainfall has fallen up to 20% since the 1970s in what scientists have for years described as one of the earliest examples of the climate crisis having a measurable influence.

This was one of the backdrops as Woodside Energy – Australia’s biggest oil and gas company, with multi-billion dollar developments in the works at home and in Africa and the Gulf of Mexico – held its annual general meeting in the Western Australian capital last week.

Across four hours, Woodside’s chairman, Richard Goyder, and chief executive, Meg O’Neill, made the company’s case and took questions from shareholders and their proxies. Many related to climate change.

A handful of the shareholders couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, argued CO2 from burning fossil fuels was airborne plant food and called the climate-concerned idiots.

But the overwhelming sentiment from investors was that the company was failing to address their concerns, and not living up to its rhetoric that it aimed to have net zero emissions by 2050. They lodged a 58% protest vote against Woodside’s climate report, the strongest against a listed company anywhere across the globe.

It was a remarkable result, reached after a concerted campaign by shareholder activist groups, and public rebukes by global pension and Australian super funds. Goyder, who has had a torrid recent time as the chair of both Woodside and Qantas, ended the meeting by saying the company took the non-binding feedback seriously, and would consider it as it reviewed its approach to climate change.

They were the words he had to say after an embarrassing slap down, but there was little else at the meeting to back them up. The message was internally contradictory. On the one hand: we’re listening, we hear you and we’re open to change. But also: we reject what you say. And we have some giant fossil fuel developments to be getting on with so we can reward your financial investment.

Standard 21st century operating procedure for a fossil fuel company, in other words.

The disconnect between Woodside’s rhetoric and climate reality echoed throughout the AGM, but crystallised in a few moments. Some were throwaway – Goyder saying it was good to have a question “on the business” when discussion veered away from the ecological impact of its operations – but others were more telling.

One shareholder, referring to the state’s drought, asked whether 2.7m seedlings the company planted in the state last year to offset some of its emissions had survived. Another asked if Woodside believed it had moral and financial culpability for the impact of the climate crisis on local farmers.

Goyder acknowledged the underlying issue – “It’d be nice to get some rain in the agricultural regions of Western Australia sooner rather than later” – but said it was “a pretty long bow” to consider Woodside “responsible for the climate conditions in the agricultural parts of Western Australia”, and “nonsense” to even suggest it might be given the scale of global emissions.

On one level, this is just a truism. Woodside is not uniquely or solely responsible for the growing force of climate change being felt in the state. No one suggests it is.

On another level, it is an argument about responsibility that would not pass muster in most other walks of life. You’re only part of the cause of the problem? Ah well, keep doing more of that then.

This is, of course, the climate conundrum. The problem can be solved only if everyone, or nearly everyone, does their bit. China is often singled out as a climate villain, and not without cause. But even if it stopped polluting tomorrow that would leave about two-thirds of carbon pollution unaddressed.

Not everyone is equally responsible to make rapid and immediate emissions cuts and to help others to do the same. But it’s been widely agreed that those who are responsible to act now include (a) the wealthy and (b) polluters working in areas where there are viable and affordable zero-emissions alternatives. It should shock no one to learn an Australian oil and gas company qualifies on both counts.

Woodside’s response is to claim it is acting, mainly by paying for some carbon offsets to put a dent in its direct emissions. But when Bill Hare, a scientist and head of the global consultancy Climate Analytics, asked the company to justify its claim that its plans align with the goals of the landmark Paris agreement, Goyder and O’Neill had no answer, other than to assert that it did.

The hole in the argument was so great, and so obvious, that a majority of voting shareholders felt they could not be seen to take it seriously. That hasn’t happened before. It shows the shift in sentiment in the investment community.

But we shouldn’t get carried away. The pension and super funds still overwhelmingly backed in Goyder as chair, returning him with only 16% voting against. A cynic might say they scolded the company over its climate stance at zero cost while backing the existing management to continue to keep delivering fossil-fuel powered dividends.

Out in the real world, the climate crisis comes in a rush, whether it is flooding in the Dubai desert, heatwaves shutting schools and upending lives across southern Asia, continent-sized sea ice loss in Antarctica, or record mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Boardroom change is a slower operation.

What happens from here? Goyder said he and the company’s investor relations team have already held more than 150 meetings with investors over their climate concerns. Presumably there are more to come. But Woodside still plans to spend $18bn on fossil fuel projects over the next five years.

The circle can’t be squared while it remains wedded to the self-interested line that gas – the largest source of fossil fuel emissions growth last decade – is a climate solution. But the AGM shows that argument is increasingly exposed, and the push against it isn’t going away.

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Photographer accidentally snaps rare bird in Oregon: ‘It’s mind-blowing’ | Birds

Michael Sanchez was setting up his new camera to capture a waterfall at Oregon’s Hug Point at sunrise when he spotted a little bird hopping around. He snapped a few photos, and didn’t think much more of it.

A week later, those snapshots have made him the star – and the envy – of the local birding community. Sanchez, who is from Vancouver, Washington, may have inadvertently captured the first images of an extremely rare blue rock-thrush in North America.

The species, which is native to east Asia, has only once before been spotted in this region, in 1997. But that sighting was rejected by the American Birding Association. If Sanchez’s images are verified by local and national birding groups, he could be credited as the first person to successfully record a blue rock-thrush in the region.

“I was very very surprised to see just how stirred up this got folks,” he said. “It’s mind-blowing.”

Sanchez, a middle school band director and musician who very recently took up photography as a hobby, had never considered himself much of a birder. But as he was reviewing his photos from his trip to the coast, it struck him that the cute bird he saw was unusual – he’d never seen anything like it before. “So I thought, I’ve got to post it on the socials, right?” Not long after, a friend of a friend – an avid birder – reached out. From its unique blue and chestnut plumage, the bird looked distinctively like a male blue rock-thrush. It turned out, Sanchez may have set a birding record.

“A lot of times when something like this happens, there’s a lot of effort among the birding community to try and verify it, because everyone wants to go and see it for themselves,” said Brodie Cass Talbott, of the Bird Alliance of Oregon and the Oregon Birding Association.

Volunteer experts have been working with Sanchez to verify the image and confirm its location. No other local birders have been able to spot the bird since Sanchez photographed it – but oddly, there was another blue rock-thrush sighting four days later, at the Farallon Islands off the San Francisco coast.

It’s unclear whether this was the same bird or another bird. As Sanchez’s photos made rounds in online birding groups, another person reported seeing what may have been the same blue rock-thrush in January, but was not able to take a photo.

It is doubly uncertain how this bird even made it so far from its home, to North America. “Maybe this bird individually just has faulty navigation,” said Cass Talbot. It may have gotten lost, and then trapped in a strong wind system. Or it may have hitched a ride on a ship.

Usually, when ultra-rare, non-endemic bird species turn up on the west coast, they tend to be seabirds, spotted far off shore. “That’s part of why it’s been such a big story here, and people have been so excited about it,” he said. “It’s just sort of mind-bending.”

The implausible sighting has been a reminder of how unexpected and fascinating birding can be, Cass Talbot added. “It’s always neat for us to see how big the world is and how incredible these creatures are.”

Sanchez agrees. He wasn’t a birder before, but “this really has opened my eyes,” he said.

“I guess I’m a birder at this point,” Sanchez said. “I think I’m in the club.”

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More than 90% of marine animals caught in NSW shark nets over summer were non-target species | Marine life

More than 90% of marine animals caught in shark nets off New South Wales beaches over the summer were non-target species, with new documents revealing division within the government over the controversial program.

More than half of the 208 non-target species – such as turtles, dolphins and smaller sharks – that were caught in the nets over the past eight months were killed, data obtained by conservationists show.

The 134 dead animals included five critically endangered grey nurse sharks, four endangered leatherback turtles and an endangered loggerhead turtle, according to the figures released on Tuesday as the nets were removed for another year.

The data, obtained by Humane Society International under the state’s information access laws, show that of the total non-target animals caught, only 74 animals or 36% were released alive.

There were 15 target animals caught; three tiger sharks and 12 great white sharks, with five of these killed. The conservation group said no target shark species were caught at any of Sydney’s metropolitan beaches.

Under NSW’s shark meshing program, nets are installed at 51 beaches between Newcastle and Wollongong from 1 September to 30 April every year.

Before the nets were installed last year, the department of primary industries (DPI) advised the agriculture minister, Tara Moriarty, that the nature of the nets used meant the catch of non-target species was “unavoidable”.

Briefing documents prepared by the department for Moriarty, seen by Guardian Australia, also show the shark nets are considered a “key threatening process” because of how many non-target species, or “bycatch”, are affected.

“The catch in the shark meshing program has always and continues to be dominated by non-target animals. The average ratio of bycatch to the catch of target sharks … in recent years has been approximately 12:1,” one of the briefs said.

The nets were rolled out last year despite the government saying it would wait until it received feedback from eight coastal councils before making a decision.

A brief prepared by the environment department in August last year, seen by Guardian Australia, says the DPI “initially offered coastal councils the option to opt out of shark nets” deployed in their area but then backflipped.

“On 21 August 2023, [Moriarty] announced that the nets would go back in on 1 September for the full meshing season, to allow DPI to gather further data to make better informed decisions about possible changes,” the brief said.

These possible changes could include removing nets in select council areas in the 2024-2025 season, according to the brief.

A government spokesperson on Monday said the department was incorrect to say councils were offered the chance to opt out of the program.

“Last year DPI conducted formal consultation with relevant councils regarding shark management, including their willingness to be involved in future administration,” the spokesperson said.

“As trials of new technologies are proven to improve safety outcomes for swimmers, the government will consider support for the reassessment of shark nets to move towards new technologies.”

The environment minister, Penny Sharpe, has privately voiced her support for ending the use of shark nets.

Sharpe wrote to Moriarty before the 2023-2024 shark meshing season began, proposing their respective agencies work together with local councils on a “staged approach to remove” the nets.

“I understand work with local councils is progressing to allow them to decide whether to continue to use shark nets in their local areas,” Sharpe wrote in a letter seen by Guardian Australia.

“Giving councils the choice to opt out of shark nets empowers local communities to decide the best mix of shark protection measures for their area.”

Envoy Foundation conservationist Andre Borell, who obtained the documents under the state’s information access laws, said Sharpe should “stand up for the environment publicly”.

“A letter in the background I don’t feel is enough,” Borell said. “We would love for them to be more public about that instead of leaving it all to the community and NGOs.”

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