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New West Daily Roundup for Aug. 31, 2016

Today in New West news: climate change and the pika, Wyoming sage grouse numbers up, and Blue Marble Biomaterials brings home the bacon.

The pika, “cousin” to rabbits and hares, is a small mammal found in cold, mountainous climates. Beloved by photographers and biologists alike, it is nonetheless threatened by climate change. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, a new study out on the pika from the U.S. Geological Survey has concluded that, as temperatures rise, the pika’s habitat has shrunk. This includes ranges in southern Utah, northeastern California, and across the Great Basin (most of Nevada and parts of Utah, Oregon, Idaho, and California).

The study is the first to authoritatively declare climate as the factor when it comes to pika habitat decline. From the Tribune:

“The longer we go along, the evidence continues to suggest that climate is the single strongest factor,” said Erik Beever, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and lead author.

The pika’s habitat on mountain slopes, known as talus, are hotter and drier in the summer and more harsh in the winter with less snowpack to serve as an insulator, Beever said.

The study bolsters the case for wildlife advocacy groups pushing for years to have the animal added to the endangered species list amid concerns about global warming.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected a request in 2010, saying not all populations were declining. A new request was made this April by a high school student in New York state.

A preliminary decision on that request is due out in early September, but the agency’s staff won’t take into account the new study because they are bound to only take into account information submitted with the petition, said Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Serena Baker.

Noah Greenwald, the Center for Biological Diversity’s endangered species director, said the new research confirms that climate change is putting the animal at real risk. He said it should help with future petitions to have the animal declared endangered — something he says is necessary to ensure future generations are treated to seeing the critters during mountain hikes.

“It’s gotta be one of the cutest animals in North America. It’s like a cross between a bunny rabbit and prairie dog,” Greenwald said. “Part of what makes our world interesting is the diversity of animals and plants that you can see when you go to different species.”

President Barack Obama mentioned the plight of the pika this summer when he spoke at Yosemite National Park about the damage climate change is inflicting on the nation’s national parks. He said the pika was being forced further upslope at Yosemite to escape the heat.

The study didn’t quantify how many total American pika still exist, but homed in on several areas where the small animal has historically roamed eating grass, weeds and wildflowers.

The animal is thriving in a few places, such as the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, but overall is suffering, Beever said.

At Utah’s Zion National Park, they’re gone all together despite being seen as recently as 2011. In nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument, they’re no longer in three-fourths of their historical habitat, Beever said.

Keeping with wildlife news, sage grouse numbers in the state of Wyoming are up for the third year in a row, after a sharp decline. The greater sage grouse and associated management practices have attracted scorn and praise, as stakeholders vie for control of the issue. In spite of the rise, however, the bird’s future is still uncertain, according to the Billings Gazette:

Biologists and others who fanned out across Wyoming this spring counted more male sage grouse at leks, or sage grouse mating areas, than any year since 2007. The number of males per lek averaged 35.7, up 16 percent from 2015, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department data released Monday.

The 2015 count was up 66 percent from 2014, which was up 10 percent from 2013. From 2006-2013, the count plummeted almost 60 percent.

State sage grouse coordinator Tom Christiansen cautioned against reading too much into the recent data. Sage grouse can and often will decline sharply from year to year, and biologists consider the decade-by-decade trends for the chicken-sized, ground-dwelling birds more important.

“We don’t want to see the peaks to continue getting lower and the bottoms continuing to get lower,” Christiansen said Tuesday.

Still, the data appear to support last year’s decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to protect the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species. The oil and gas industry and others welcomed the announcement, as listing would severely disrupt drilling.

Christiansen credited the wet spring weather without too much snow for helping green up Wyoming’s sagebrush basins and giving the birds a boost.

“We’re a lot like ranchers. We want the moisture. But if it comes at the wrong time, it can be detrimental,” he said.

Finally, up in Montana, Missoula-based Blue Marble Biomaterials has made a name for itself in the biochemical industry, with researchers bringing home the bacon—in a way. According to the Missoulian, Blue Marble specializes in “natural bacon flavoring,” specifically a plant-based compound that uses biomass rather than petroleum to derive their ingredients:

“Most don’t believe me when I say this but we have succeeded in manufacturing this product from over a dozen different types of biomass, including spent coffee grounds, tomato pomace (skin, pulp, seeds and stems) and grape pomace,” said Colby Underwood, Blue Marble co-CEO and chief business officer. “Yes, you heard me right. The flavor and aroma of bacon from plants.”

The product, officially called bacon dithiazine, meets all the natural-labeling requirements set forth by the United States and the European Union.

“Others in our industry call us Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory because we’re always working on crazy things like bacon flavoring,” Underwood said.

It is manufactured here using a proprietary, non-GMO fermentation technology and is certified vegan and kosher. The flavor was approved by an expert panel of what are essentially flavor testers.

“We are delivering what the industry is searching for: 100 percent verified natural, cost-competitive alternatives to petroleum-derived ingredients and other so-called ‘natural’ products,” Underwood explained.

An unimaginable quantity of consumer products, including those in the food and beverage industry, are synthetically derived from petroleum, Underwood said.

“Over 90 percent of consumer products have one or more petroleum-derived chemical ingredient added to their recipes,” he said. “It might be a flavor chemical to produce a specific type of flavor. It could be a performance chemical that reduces wrinkles by being applied to the face through a lotion.”

Blue Marble’s mission is to replace those chemicals made from crude oil with fully sustainable alternatives made from plant leftovers. The company employs 30 people, many with scientific backgrounds, at its carbon-neutral facility on Expressway Drive near the airport.


Using materials that are traditionally considered waste allows Blue Marble to price its products at a cost that is competitive with synthetic products. Consumers are increasingly demanding so-called “green” or “natural” products, and they’re willing to pay a premium for those products – but only to a point.

“We’re going to be competitive as possible with synthetic chemicals and one of the ways we do that is by using low-value starting materials,” Underwood said.

Their core technology, which uses bacteria to break down biomass, could allow them to produce bioplastics and biofuels in the future.

“We treat our core technology like a black box trade secret,” Underwood said.

Underwood added that every aspect of the business takes place in Missoula.

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