Tuesday, February 15, 2022

River otters are making a comeback


“You gotta be otter your mind!”


Claudette Conigliaro, who is a fish and wildlife technician with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), probably gets that response all the time from friends and family when she tells them she’s heading off into the winter wilds to look for evidence of river otters.


Just last week, days before the mid-winter blessing of a brief thaw, she left me a message that she was heading to my family’s farm in Gasport to survey our stream. I really appreciate her love for her job and wildlife, because I had gone 3 weeks without a hike on the farm due to two big snowstorms and constant winds coming off the Niagara Escarpment having made hiking frustratingly difficult with the deep and drifted snow. But, she still went about her job -- her calling – and ventured to the waterway.


Despite the initial disbelief one might have over her duties, one quickly realizes it makes perfect sense to chase down otters now -- it’s undoubtedly the best time of year because the giant water weasels will leave telltale signs in the snow, such as tracks with a dragging tail and the slides that they use for playing and accessing the water.  


It’s also not something new to the biologists. Claudette and her fellow wildlife techs at the DEC undertook such a project in the winter of 2018 when they surveyed 1,192 sites across the state. Think about that -- nearly 1,200 locations, which ranged anywhere from a few hundred yards to a few miles of walking, often through knee deep snows in the thick brush that is so often found around creeks and rivers.


This winter they are surveying prior locations and adding more, such as our farm. So, don’t be surprised if you see a DEC vehicle in your neighborhood or an unmarked personal car from which comes someone with waders, showshoes, and a backpack.


If they already did this in 2018, why do it again 4 years later?


Well, the 2018 survey showed that otters were making a comeback in WNY. This year’s survey should show continued expansion of range and population.


The dramatic return of these beautiful animals to this end of the state was made possible by the New York River Otter Project which aimed to restore otters to the watersheds of WNY. Prior to 1990, otters were all but extinct in the region thanks to unregulated harvest, habitat destruction, and pollution. To right those wrongs, from 1995 through 2000, volunteers, colleges, and DEC staff live-trapped otters in the Adirondacks, Catskills, and Hudson Valley and released 279 of them at 16 different locations, primarily in the Finger Lakes and Genesee River valley.


I think the DEC will be in for some pleasant surprises this year. Last summer, I got a call from a friend that river otters were hanging around his son’s dock in a Niagara River tributary. That was the first time, in all his 60-plus years outdoors on the Niagara Frontier, that he saw one of these critters in the wild.


I hope you get that chance, too. You’ve likely only seen otters on television nature shows, going down their slides or floating on their backs with their babies using the adults as glorified pool lounges. They are very large for weasels, reaching lengths of 3 to 4 feet, counting their tails. Adults can weigh anywhere between 10 and 30 pounds. At such sizes, there’s no way they should be confused with mink, which is what many alleged otter sightings end up being. If you are fortunate enough to see an otter, you can help the DEC by reporting your sighting via the “furbearers sightings survey” page on the DEC website.


Otters are a sight to see and they are a creature to experience. They are gregarious and playful, inquisitive and high-strung. “Charismatic” is the best word I’ve heard to describe them.


That fits my lone encounter with one, which happened 10 years ago on Quiver Pond in the Adirondacks. I was far from shore in my kayak when all of a sudden I heard a snort. I turned to see an otter just 3 feet from my boat staring at me. He spent the next 15 minutes going under and around the kayak, periodically coming up to make a number of sounds like whistles and squeals. At one point, he did a remarkable maneuver of kicking his tail and legs underwater with such strength that he elevated his whole upper body out of the water like he was standing up.


It was an experience I’ll never forget. I hope I have more like that one day, whether it’s at the Erie Canal, the Genesee River, or Alma Pond. They’re certainly on the road to recovery and could be at such places already. This year’s survey might show that.


Fingers crossed that otters could soon join other animals that only in recent decades made significant comebacks across WNY, wildlife such as fishers, bobcats, bears, and bald eagles.


This really is an exciting time to be an outdoors enthusiast.


From the 16 February 2022 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun

Monday, February 14, 2022

Small town poverty is a big issue


There is a food pantry at Zion Lutheran Church in Gasport that is open once per month. On any given distribution day, 20 to 35 families (encompassing 80 to 100 people) use the service. That’s a substantial number, given how small Gasport is.


If you tell those numbers to anyone, and specifically Gasportians, it’s met with amazement. They’ll claim that Gasport doesn’t look like it’s saddled with poverty and that they don’t really know anyone in need.


That’s the problem with poverty. It sneaks up on you. It often doesn’t look like it should and appears in places you’d least expect.


That’s especially the case in rural and small town America.


We all know the inner-cities are impoverished. It grabs the attention of the press, academia, and policymakers. And, it grabs a disproportionate amount of money and energy in the war on poverty.


Rural poverty, on the other hand, remains under the radar. You almost never hear about it on the nightly news and it’s even rarer yet to hear an elected official cast a spotlight on it. 


Maybe it’s because it’s less noticeable than it is in the big city. Rural poverty is less centralized and more spread-out through a given community with low-income families living next door to middle or high income folks. You don’t get that in cities where social classes tend to be segregated.


Maybe it’s because it’s fly-over country. The population centers, for better or worse, dictate thought and public policy throughout America. Everything outside of the likes of Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami is meaningless to powerbrokers. We live that here in the Empire State – New York City lawmakers determine what happens across the state, much to the detriment of upstate.


Regardless of why it’s ignored, it’s a problem nonetheless and, as many will find surprising, one greater than that of the cities.


In urban locales, 12 percent of the population is considered impoverished while 15 percent of rural and small town Americans are. 

That accounts for 9 million Americans living below the poverty line in towns identical to those where this news outlet has its readers.

Worse yet, of those 9 million people, a majority of them are children. While you may not know their circumstances in the home, it’s more than likely you know many of those kids. They could be your neighbors. They could be your kids’ friends. They could be the boy on your little league team.   

As the president of the board of the local Boy Scout council which serves eastern Niagara and the GLOW counties, I tell people all the time that we not a social club for boys, but rather a social service organization. Our duty is to deliver education and development to children, in need and out of need, to help them rise above any obstacles in their lives and prepare them for careers, service, and parenting.

When one looks at how the youth served by our council are besieged by poverty, you’ll understand my social service designation.

In Medina, 26% of the population under the age of 18 lives below the poverty line while in Batavia that rate is 27%. In Geneseo it’s 22% and in Albion it’s 12.

Or, on a more macro scale, consider the poverty rates for minors in each of the counties under our jurisdiction: Wyoming (13 percent), Niagara (16), Genesee (16), Orleans (20) and Livingston (22 percent).

Basically, 1-out-of-every-6 or 1-out-of-every-5 kids are impoverished in this region. 

That’s why our local school districts have so many free or discounted breakfast and lunch programs. In order to best utilize the wonderful public resources that our public schools offer, the children there need to be nourished or it’s all for naught.

That’s why food pantries are tested to their limits. 35 families at Gasport’s food pantry…that’s a lot. But it pales in comparison to the mobile food pantries and distributions that have taken place in Orleans County where
hundreds of families line up at a time, their cars backed up for blocks or miles.

That’s why Medicaid and other public health programs over so heavily utilized – and, in turn, heavily-taxed – in upstate New York. Medicaid is a burden on our property and sales taxes because so many families are forced to utilize the program.

Most people wouldn’t expect such abject poverty in God’s Country. I don’t care if they’re visiting from a suburb or living right here in the epicenter. The unparalleled beauty of the fields, forests, and hills seem to do a fine job in hiding the fact that are some truly painful circumstances plaguing our rural communities and economies.

Small town poverty is a big issue. It’s time we brought this out of hiding and did our best as a people to initiate the policies -- locally and nationally -- to bring opportunity and prosperity to those who have been deprived of hope for far too long.


From the 31 January 2022 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun

A national crisis in rare earth elements


The history of mankind has been filled with numerous wars, of both the military and trade sort, over elements that come from the Earth. Gold and silver have long been at the epicenter of such struggles, many a civilization driven to destruction over their greed - or other peoples’ desires - for the metals.

There are other precious elements now taking their place as resources hungered by all and they are already testing the balance of power in global trade. Rare earth elements (REE) are a collection of 17 members of the periodic table. All of them are not as well-known as metals like copper and zinc yet they are just as important. REE like yttrium (cancer treatments), lanthanum (hybrid car batteries), cerium (catalytic converters), neodymium (magnets) and gadolinium (nuclear reactors) are crucial to modern society.


Like gold in our world’s long history, whoever possesses REE possesses the power. 


We don’t.

Currently, China mines and processes in excess of 85% of the world’s rare earths. In 2018, the United States was considered 100% net-import reliant with the stuff.

Needless to say, having all of our eggs in one basket – especially one held by China - is dangerous for national security. Just ask Japan.

Back in September 2010, Chinese officials temporarily unleashed a trade embargo that prevented shipments of REE to Japan, scaring the dickens out of Japanese manufacturers. It was believed China did this as a bargaining chip to secure the release of a Chinese captain detained by Japanese officials.

In the whole scheme of things, a political impasse like that is nothing in comparison to the potential for conflict that exists between China and the US. While store shelves across our country are filled with products sporting “Made in China” labels, China really isn’t our friend.


China controls $1.05 trillion in US debt and we’ve had strained relations of late for various reasons, be it warranted flexing by Presidents Trump and Biden, China’s continued posturing over Taiwan, global disdain for China’s human rights record, and the too-friendly relationship between China and North Korea (to whom China is the supplier of the physical and intellectual resources needed to make Pyongyang’s ballistics).


It wouldn’t take much for an agitated China to impose REE restrictions, be it higher costs or limited supplies, both of which would weaken the USA’s various manufacturing sectors while strengthening China’s.


China has gotten to this point of dominating the rare earth element marketplace because of their less-stringent environmental standards. Most of the 17 elements are not rare as the name supplies. Some are widely available throughout the world yet are rare in finished, usable form because the excavation and processing of them can be toxic to the environment if not properly controlled.

America has been mostly out of the REE game for years because of those warranted environmental concerns. But, environmentalists in the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency now see merit in the development of REE projects because they know that, ironically, clean energy technologies (like wind turbines and new-age automobiles) require rare earths. It’s a catch-22: One set of resources (REE) must be capitalized at cost to the environment to prevent other resources (oil, coal) from harming the environment.

In 2008, a company named Molycorp was finally given the okay to tap into a vast REE reserve in the Mojave Desert after an 8-year suspension of operations by the federal government. That mine offers the single largest deposit of REE outside of China. The value of the materials couldn’t overcome the debt accumulated as Molycorp went bankrupt in 2014. MP Materials bought the mine in 2017 and has had a better go of it, except for one caveat – it has partnered with a Chinese firm, Shenghe Resources, to do the processing.   


It is hoped that other projects – mines and processing facilities -- are developed and quickly; this is genuinely a matter of national security. But, doing so will require a serious public-private partnership that will need the government, environmentalists, and corporations working hand in hand to develop guidelines and processes necessary for a relatively clean and safe realization of our resources’ potentials.


President Biden is on board with this, as he and his Administration have repeatedly touted the need to improve this critical part of US supply chains. Over the past year he has initiated executive orders and various studies into this while empowering agencies to come up with plans on maximizing what we have and could have.


He’s not alone. Last month, for example, a bipartisan bill that was introduced in the US Senate would force defense contractors to stop buying REE from China by 2026 and have the Pentagon create a stockpile. It’s the latest in a long line of legislative proposals.


Because of that universal interest in this, especially after the pandemic laid bare all supply chains and exposed our reliance on foreign manufacturers, I would expect significant funding to be proposed sometime in 2022 for domestic development of mining and processing operations. It’s one of those very rare times that this libertarian-ish columnist wouldn’t mind seeing some public investment in private endeavors.   


Without the ability to produce REE we are heading into a new national crisis, one where we will suffer in the health, energy, and defense industries. If you want to weaken a nation, that’s where you strike. And, that’s exactly what we’ve allowed China to do.


From the 24 January 2022 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun