Saturday, March 28, 2009

NAT: Bringing Back Blackfoot

Bringing back Blackfoot
Rachel Ermineskin preserves her language for future generations
Published March 26, 2009 by Jeremy Klaszus in City

Oki. When Siksika elder Rachel Ermineskin speaks the Blackfoot greeting, there’s a musicality to it. It’s like a tiny, one-second song. Oki. Hello.

It comes naturally to Ermineskin. She grew up on the Siksika reserve east of Calgary and has been speaking Siksika Blackfoot — “my language,” she always says — from childhood. “My parents spoke Blackfoot, and then they went to school in residential schools,” recalls Ermineskin, 75.

She eventually went to Saint Joseph’s Residential School, where she and the other students were forbidden to speak their own language and forced to use English instead. “My mother prepared me for my residential school experience,” says Ermineskin. “I spent 10 years there, and I didn’t lose my language because we still spoke it when we got home during the summer holidays.”

Today, Ermineskin’s fluency makes her a rarity. Sitting in a sparely decorated band house on the open Siksika reserve south of Gleichen, she laments the language’s decline. “[Our young people] are mostly into English language,” says Ermineskin, who recently moved back home from the city. Only one in four aboriginal people speaks an aboriginal language, according to Statistics Canada. Estimates peg the number of Blackfoot speakers at around 3,500. (Cree, by contrast, has around 80,000 speakers.) The Blackfoot language, once widely spoken by a proud warrior people that dominated the Prairies of southern Alberta and Montana, is endangered — and this generous, silver-haired grandmother has been instrumental in helping local linguists preserve it.

Blackfoot has four dialects: Siksika, Kainai (Blood), Apatohsipiikani (Peigan) and Amsskaapipiikani (South Peigan). “We all speak the same language, but we all say some words a little different,” explains Ermineskin. A professor at the University of Lethbridge created a Kainai-English dictionary in the ’80s, but less has been done to preserve Siksika Blackfoot. “[It’s] a really largely ignored dialect of the language,” says Elizabeth Ritter, a linguistics professor at the University of Calgary. “…For us, the loss of a language is like the loss of a species.”

Ermineskin, then, is a Blackfoot conservationist of sorts. The mother of 10 spent most of her life working in community health on southern Alberta reserves and, later, working with residential school survivors. It was only after she retired in 2000 that she started mentoring students and staff and developing Siksika Blackfoot teaching material for the university.

“The term we use is ‘language consultant,’” says Ritter. “But we often refer to her as our teacher, because essentially that’s what she does. She teaches us about her language.” More specifically, Ermineskin explains the structure and meanings of the language, correcting the errors of researchers who didn’t grow up speaking Blackfoot.

“What she tries to do is make conscious her unconscious knowledge of her language so that we can study it,” says Ritter. “It takes remarkable patience and insight and, I think, real intelligence to do the job as well as Rachel does it.”

A BEAUTIFUL LANGUAGE

Heather Bliss met Ermineskin at the U of C while studying Blackfoot, and she wanted to learn how — exactly how — Ermineskin speaks the way she does. Blackfoot often contains “voiceless vowels” at the ends of words, says Bliss, who’s now a linguistics PhD student at the University of British Columbia. “They’re really, really de-voiced.”

To study these voiceless vowels further, Bliss took ultrasounds of Ermineskin’s mouth as she spoke words ending in the two different vowels. She could hear no audible difference, but the ultrasound revealed something important: “the shape of her tongue is actually different when she’s making these different ‘sounds,’ even though there’s no sound difference at all,” Bliss says.

Discoveries like these are invaluable to researchers trying to grasp a very challenging language. “Some say it’s a hard language because it’s fairly guttural,” says Ermineskin. “Some say it’s a beautiful language to know.”

Oki is easy to speak and understand, but beyond that, the words get much longer and more complex. Lions, for example, is aimoyokiniomitaiks. The number 857 is na-ni-si-ki-pip-poo-ni-si-tsip-poo-ih-kit-tsi-ki-kopoto. “A lot of them start to sound very similar,” says Sara Johansson, an instructor of the U of C’s intro to Blackfoot course — a class she and Ermineskin taught together. “There’s a lot of tsstss, and it’s hard for an English mind to parse that.”

While English sentences are built around tense — when something happened — Blackfoot sentences are very different. “What matters in Blackfoot is who’s involved,” says Bliss. “So it matters if the speaker is there or not, it matters if the addressee is there or not, it matters who else is involved in the discourse…. That’s a real fundamental difference.”

TOUGH BLACKFOOT WARRIORS

At Johansson’s undergraduate class, laughter is almost constant as students try to wrap their heads and tongues around long Blackfoot phrases. The words have to be deconstructed piece by piece, starting at the end of a word, to become pronounceable. Spa. Yo’sspa. Ta’aooyo’sspa. Kikata’aooyo’spa. (It means: do you cook?)

The class gives it a try, but they need Noreen Breaker, another Siksika elder and language consultant, to guide their pronunciation. Breaker speaks the phrase into a microphone, and the class repeats it until they get it. “You guys sound good,” Johansson says with a grin. “You’re tough Blackfoot warriors.”

Breaker makes the hour-plus drive from the reserve to the university twice a week for the class. Like Ermineskin, she wants her language to be preserved so it outlives her. “That’s very important to me,” she says. Even Breaker, a native speaker of Siksika Blackfoot, has expanded her knowledge of the language because of Ermineskin. “Some things I didn’t know about my language I know now,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot from her.”

After working through the cooking conversation, the group of about 12 students form a circle to play a game of Napi Says, a Blackfoot version of Simon Says. Breaker gives an instruction in Blackfoot — ihpiyik — and the students all start dancing until she says miin ihpiyik — stop dancing.

The course’s focus is conversational Blackfoot, and it’s intended to give students “a way to learn about the language, to learn about the cultures, to learn about the stories and the past and the people,” says John Archibald, head of the university’s linguistics department.

Indeed, when Ermineskin was teaching the course, she’d often sneak in a little Blackfoot history, telling stories about her nomadic ancestors. “In the winter time we moved towards the river in the bush for shelter, and then in the summertime we’d move out in the open prairie, close to rivers and wood, but out in the open for hunting,” she says. “We subsisted that way, and we didn’t have the garbage we have today…. We’re the ones that showed you Canada. You guys didn’t discover it. We were already here. And that’s why I say they should rewrite the Canadian history [with] the native perspective in it.”

HOPES FOR PRESERVATION

Even though the Blackfoot language is endangered, linguists are optimistic it can be preserved. Bliss notes that some West Coast languages are much closer to extinction. “Some of them have maybe 10 speakers left,” she says. Compared with those languages, Blackfoot has a brighter future. “I think Blackfoot’s still at a point where it could be saved,” says Bliss. “Like I said, there’s probably several thousand speakers, and they’re not all 80. There’s probably some that are in their 40s, 50s. This is an interesting language that has a lot of things to tell us about language in general.”

Ermineskin is also hopeful that her language can be preserved for future generations. “If we continue with the linguistic studies and if it’s put on computer, on tapes, on discs, whatever kind of recordings we can get them on, we can do that,” she says.

In early March, the university’s faculty association gave Ermineskin a recognition award for her work. “I never thought I would get anything from a university,” Ermineskin says. Now that she’s retired again and back on the reserve with Elvis, her little white chihuahua, she won’t be at the university anymore. But she has trouble retiring for good and plans to keep helping her friends at the university via phone and Internet. “We have the technology to preserve these kinds of things, so why not?”

She also plans to keep learning her language from elders on the reserve who know the language even better than she does. Even Ermineskin has trouble pronouncing some words. “My mother used to say there’s no end of learning until you die,” she says. “And that’s what I tell my kids."

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Friday, March 27, 2009

ATH: National Team Preview

U.S. National Team Players Association

Scouting Report: El Salvador

By Clemente Lisi -- El Salvador may not be the toughest team in the world, but their fans sure help make the difference whenever “La Selecta” plays at home. The United States can expect very hostile fans when the squad walks onto the field at San Salvador’s Estadio Cuscatlan on Saturday night.

A harsh reception is nothing new for teams that play on the road during World Cup qualifying, although El Salvadorians bring hostility to whole new levels.

Just last month, FIFA fined the El Salvadorians $25,300 for their inability to control fans during a hard-fought 2-2 tie against Trinidad & Tobago at the Estadio Cuscatlan, a crumbling concrete structure that opened in 1976 and holds 53,000 fans. Throughout much of the game, debris rained onto the field, and despite three announcements over the public address system pleading with the crowd to stop, the shower of cups and other trash continued to be thrown onto the field.

The recent emergence of El Salvador’s national team has been accompanied by a series of unsavory incidents over the past two years. Last June, El Salvador trailed visiting Panama 1-0 at halftime in the second leg of a preliminary World Cup qualifying-round match. Having already lost the first leg 1-0, El Salvador still went through, scoring three times in the last 20 minutes (including one goal on a controversial PK) as Panama had two players ejected.

"From the start to the finish of the game, our players were constantly insulted by the public who, in addition to the racist insults, threw bottles, bags of water and bags of urine, amid the indifference of the police, who should have given protection," the Panamanian Federation wrote in a letter to FIFA.

Panama also complained about that Mexican referee Marco Antonio Rodriguez for failing to stop the game when a bottle was thrown at their goalkeeper. Neither FIFA nor CONCACAF punished Rodriguez. Ironically, he was the same ref who officiated El Salvador's qualifier with Trinidad & Tobago last month that later led to the fine.

As for the type of reception the US will receive, coach Bob Bradley is realistic.

“El Salvador is always a tough place to play,” he said. “We understand that.”

The El Salvador game is the start of a four-day stretch for the Americans. After playing on the road, the US returns home to take on Trinidad & Tobago on April 1st in Nashville.

As for El Salvador, its chances of beating the US – and reaching next year’s World Cup finals – rests largely on the shoulders of their young players. A long shot to reach the World Cup in 2010 (they qualified for the 1970 and 1982 finals), El Salvador is led by 20-year-old forward Rodolfo Zelaya. His goals in the previous round (a hat trick against Haiti and a goal versus Suriname) have gotten El Salvador this far. A player that reminds many of Raul Diaz Arce, Zelaya, who has four goals in just 13 games, is quick with the ball and one of the fastest players on the team.

In midfield, the El Salvadorians feature a dynamic duo of Eliseo Quintanilla and Edwin Miranda. Quintanilla, who scored two goals against Panama in that hotly contested match last year to spearhead the rally, is the squad’s playmaker. When he’s not seeing tohis defensive duties in the midfield, Quintanilla, 26, is dishing off passes to his teammates and moving the ball up field. Tallying an impressive 11 goals in 35 games for the national team, Quintanilla is no stranger to American soccer fans. He played for DC United in 2003 and 2004, scoring seven goals in 32 games.

Playing alongside Quintanilla is Miranda, who also has an American connection. He was born in El Salvador, but grew up in California (and later played soccer at Cal State Northridge). The 28-year-old is fairly new to the national team (he only has three caps), but has been a regular for the Puerto Rico Islanders of the USL-Division 1 over the past three seasons. Primarily used as a defense midfielder, Miranda can connect with the ball off set pieces and isn’t afraid to make forays into the opposing half of the field.

Despite the home crowd, superb attack and burgeoning talent, El Salvador will be at a disadvantage against the US. Mexican-born coach Carlos de los Cobos, who is in his third year at the helm, has done everything he can to make the team competitive again -- although history remains on the US’s side.

El Salvador has never beaten the US in World Cup qualifying with its only favorable result (in six tries) coming in 1989 when they played the Americans to a 0-0 tie in St. Louis. The draw left the Americans needing to beat Trinidad & Tobago (which they did, 1-0) to reach the 1990 World Cup.

Raising Expectation

By J Hutcherson -- Pardon me if I don't jump into the pre-match hype that tends to build any team the United States happens to be playing as some test or potential problem. El Salvador doesn't have the players to make this a game home or away, and that should show over ninety minutes.

Sure, we all remember Guatemala and Cuba away, when the US spent too much time trying to break down a defense that would have bent under their normal attack. We've seen the United States get too clever with the passing, keep their target forward back, and basically make things harder. We've also seen the US defense make all the difference while the attack worked out its issues.

The United States doesn't need Tim Howard for this game. Brad Guzan in the understudy role will do, as will Marcus Hahnemann. With Pablo Mastroeni back and capable in defensive midfield, Michael Bradley should be able to play a more attacking role. Landon Donovan is good enough in these situations to develop himself, but some help would be nice.

A free flowing US trusting the defense on the counter, and this should be a mismatch from the opening whistle. Join me at 8:45pm Saturday night for live follow along coverage for ESPN2's broadcast and we'll see if I'm right.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

ATH: World Cup bids

FIFA Confirms World Cup Bids

On Tuesday, World soccer's governing body announced that 13 countries will be bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. With both Cups awarded at the end of the year, countries are allowed to bid on both. Depending on who wins hosting rights for 2018, countries from the same Confederation would then be ineligible for 2022. South Korea and Qatar submitted a bid for a specific tournament, with both bidding for 2022.

For both Cups, FIFA has bids from Australia, Belgium/Holland, England, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Spain/Portugal, and the United States.

"We are very pleased about the fantastic level of interest in our flagship competition, with all initial bidders confirming their candidature," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said. "The diversity and quality of the contenders will make this a very interesting selection process. This shows the importance of the FIFA World Cup as a truly universal event and the global power of this competition to help achieve positive change, in line with our claim: For the Game. For the World."



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Thursday, March 12, 2009

ENV: Horse Domestication Dates

Horses first domesticated 5,000 years ago
By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP SCIENCE WRITER, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Last updated March 6, 2009 4:16 a.m. PT

This undated handout photo provided by the journal Science shows a mare being milked in Northern Kazakhstan. "Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization we will find the hoofprint of the horse beside it," wrote 18th century historian John Moore. That man-and-beast march has been underway for at least 5,500 years, according to an international team of researchers reporting in Friday's edition of the journal Science. New evidence corralled in Kazakhstan indicates these ancient horses found use as beasts of burden as well as a source of food. (AP Photo/Science, Alan K. Outram)

WASHINGTON -- Medieval knights, the warriors of Saladin, Roy Rogers and fans lining racetracks around the world all owe a debt to the Botai culture, residents of Central Asia who domesticated horses more than 5,000 years ago.

New evidence corralled in Kazakhstan indicates the Botai culture used horses as beasts of burden - and as a source of meat and milk - about 1,000 years earlier than had been widely believed, according to the team led by Alan Outram of England's University of Exeter.

"This is significant because it changes our understanding of how these early societies developed," Outram said.

Domestication of the horse was an immense breakthrough - bringing horsepower to communications, transportation, farming and warfare.

The research, reported in Friday's edition of the journal Science, also shows the development of animal domestication and a fully pastoral economy may well be independent of famous centers of domestication, such as the Near East and China, Outram added.

Compared to dogs, domesticated as long as 15,000 years ago, and such food animals as sheep, goats and pigs, horses are relatively late arrivals in the human relationship.

"It is not so much the domestication of the horse that is important, but the invention of horseback riding," commented anthropologist David W. Anthony of Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. "When people began to ride, it revolutionized human transport."

"For the first time the Eurasian steppes, formerly a hostile ecological barrier to humans, became a corridor of communication across Eurasia linking China to Europe and the Near East. Riding also forever changed warfare. Boundaries were changed, new trading partners were acquired, new alliances became possible, and resources that had been beyond reach became reachable," observed Anthony, who was not part of Outram's research team.

Some researchers believe this new mobility may have led to the spread of Indo-European languages and many other common aspects of human culture, Outram said.

In addition to carrying people and their goods, horses provided meat and even milk, which some cultures still ferment into a mildly alcoholic beverage.

The date and place of horse domestication has long been subject to research, and the steppes of Central Asia and the Botai culture have previously been suggested as possibilities.

But the new report adds extensive detail to the tale.

Outram's team developed a troika of evidence the Botai domesticated horses.

- Studies of the jaws of horses from the site show tooth wear similar to that caused by bits in modern horses, an indication of riding. A 1998 paper by Anthony raised the possibility of such findings, but the new report is much more extensive and detailed.

- The leg bones of the Botai horses are more slender than those of wild horses, indicating breeding for different qualities.

The new way of measuring and analyzing horse leg bones "shows here for the first time that the Botai culture horses were closer in leg conformation to domestic horses than to wild horses. That is another first," Anthony said.

- And complex studies of ancient ceramic pots from the location showed evidence they once contained mare's milk.

"This is, apart from being fascinating, something of a smoking gun for domestication - would you milk a wild horse?" said Outram.

Anthony agreed: "If you're milking horses, they are not wild!"

"The invention of a method to identify the fat residues left by horse milk in ceramic pots is a spectacular and brilliant advance," he said of Outram's paper. "It is really important to be able to identify the fats in the clay pots as not just from horse tissue, but precisely from horse milk."

Still today mares are milked in Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

"The Kazakhs ferment it into a sour tasting and slightly alcoholic drink called 'koumiss.' It is clear that dated back at least hundreds of years, but beyond that no one knew. Who would have thought it was a practice that went back 5,500 years, at least," Outram said.

The new research was funded by Britain's Natural Environment Research Council, the British Academy and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

OBT: Horton Foote

Playwright, screenwriter Horton Foote dies
‘Tender Mercies,’ ‘Trip To Bountiful’ screenwriter died at age 92
The Associated Press, updated 4:36 p.m. CT, Wed., March. 4, 2009

Playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, who movingly portrayed the broken dreams of common people in “The Trip to Bountiful,” “Tender Mercies” and his Oscar-winning screen adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” died Wednesday in Connecticut, Paul Marte, a spokesman for Hartford Stage, said. He was 92.

Foote died in his apartment in Hartford where he was preparing work on a production for next fall at the nonprofit theater, Marte said.

Foote left the cotton fields of his native Wharton, Texas, as a teenager, dreaming of becoming an actor. But realizing his gifts as a storyteller, he embarked on a writing career that spanned more than half a century and earned him two Academy Awards (“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies”) and a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for “The Young Man From Atlanta.”

Foote was active in the theater until the end of life. His play, “Dividing the Estate,” the comic tale of a Texas family squabbling over an inheritance, was presented on Broadway this season by Lincoln Center Theater.

The stories and lives of the people he loved in Texas became the bedrock for many of his plays, with the fictional Harrison, Texas, standing in for Wharton. Dividing his time mostly between Texas and New York, he kept the Wharton home in which he had grown up and did much of his writing there.

“I picked a difficult subject, a little lost Texas town no one’s heard of or cares about,” Foote told The New York Times in 1995. “But I’m at the mercy of what I write. The subject matter has taken me over.”

Never one for urbane and trendy topics, Foote instead focused on ordinary people and how their nostalgic recollections would mislead them.

“My first memory was of stories about the past — a past that, according to the storytellers, was superior in every way to the life then being lived,” Foote wrote in 1988. “It didn’t take me long, however, to understand that the present was all we had, for the past was gone and nothing could be done about it.”

Parents and children are treated with an even touch. While many playwrights in the 1970s and 1980s turned to the evening news and wrote issue-oriented dramas, Foote stuck with everyday people dealing with problems of the heart: children without fathers, parents without children, career failures and redemption through love.

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ATH: Folding the NBA early

The Year NBA Teams Quit Early
Why Revenue Concerns, Bloated Contracts and Dreams of LeBron Are Quashing Competition
By MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, Associated Press

This season in the NBA, there are five teams who can still be considered legitimate title contenders. The other 25 are a mix of the unproven, the banged-up, the raw, the disappointing, the apathetic and the catastrophically bad.

More than 80% of the league's 30 teams have no realistic shot at winning the championship, even with more than a quarter of the season left to play. Beyond the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic -- all of whom have won at least 70% of their games -- only the San Antonio Spurs have better than a 10% chance to win the NBA title, according to lines offered by Las Vegas oddsmakers. Four teams are on track to lose at least 75% of their games, which hasn't happened in 11 years.

For the first time in NBA history, team owners, executives, and fans in numerous markets say they have resigned themselves to the idea that their teams are not going to be competitive this season and that, given the state of the economy, they could not make the sorts of expensive moves that would help them improve. "We all want to win, but we have to be aware of the uncertainty of our future revenue," said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

Beyond the obvious disappointment for fans, what's most troubling about this situation is that for the first time in the long history of North American professional sports, the majority of the teams in one league have no financial incentive to improve. Most will be better off financially if they do nothing, and in many cases, will fare even better if they make personnel moves that are certain to make them worse.

Adding to the trouble is the fact that next year, an unprecedented number of the league's best and most desirable players will become free agents -- a group that includes young superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudamire.

Last month, Rod Thorn, the president of the New Jersey Nets, called around the league looking for a team that wanted to acquire Vince Carter, one of the NBA's bona fide stars. The result was clear and decisive. Most teams had no interest in adding any player if it meant taking on an expensive contract. "I'd say there are 25 teams in that category," Mr. Thorn said.

NBA commissioner David Stern insists the league is still enjoying one of its most competitive seasons. He says he's encouraged by the addition of the Orlando Magic to the NBA's group of elite teams and by the improvement of the young and talented Portland Trail Blazers. Still, he acknowledges that owners are rightfully hesitant to make "moves whose outcome is uncertain, other than that it costs them a lot more."
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In the last two decades, the NBA has exploded in size, popularity and profitability. Revenues have risen to $4 billion from about $400 million in 1989. The value of a top-end NBA franchise grew over that span from less than $100 million to more than $400 million. The average player salary also jumped from $275,000 in 1982-83 to $5.6 million today.

In boom times, the league liked to hold up these figures as points of pride. Teams that wanted to build themselves into contenders generally did so by spending large sums of money to acquire a few great players. Orlando, the newest of the league's elite teams, has earned this position largely by committing more than $40 million, about two-thirds of the team's entire payroll, to its four top players.

But as the economy sours, NBA teams are increasingly concerned about their ability to raise sponsorship revenue and to sell expensive premium seats and skyboxes. Last week the league secured an additional $200 million credit facility to lend money to teams. Suddenly, the magnitude of the dollars in play has induced a wave of moves that don't seem to be aimed at winning games.

In November, the Detroit Pistons, who were second in the Eastern Conference in wins last season, traded arguably their best player, Chauncey Billups, to Denver for the oft-injured guard Allen Iverson. The Pistons started the year 21-12 but did not acquire any of the available top-tier players at last month's trade deadline.
[Vince Carter] Getty Images

For the first time in major pro sports, the vast majority of the teams in one league have no incentive to improve. Above, the New Jersey Nets' Vince Carter.

The Pistons have won only eight of their last 25 games and are now a .500 team. The Billups trade was an economic coup: when Mr. Iverson's contract expires at the end of this season, the Pistons can lop off $21 million from their payroll. If they hadn't traded Mr. Billups, the team would have owed him the final three years of his four-year $46 million contract.

Competitively, the move has been less successful. In a game last week, after Mr. Iverson left with an injury, Pistons fans were treated to this spectacle: the honor of taking a game-tying three-point shot landed in the hands of guard Walter Hermann, whose 33% success rate from beyond the arc doesn't crack the league's top 100. Joe Dumars, the team's president, declined to comment.

The New York Knicks, who have won just over 40% of their games, say they are not as concerned with winning this year or next as they are with clearing payroll room to make a run at some premium free agents in 2010.

"It's what you have to do if you want to be a contending team," said New York team president Donnie Walsh, who recently saw Mr. James score 52 points with 11 assists and nine rebounds against his team at Madison Square Garden.

Mr. Walsh estimated that rebuilding through trades and draft picks would take him seven years, but signing stars like Mr. James could cut the process at least in half. For now, his sense is that fans are willing to put up with the pain. "There are a lot of people who come up to me and say, 'All right, that's where we are,'" he said.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

ENV: Blue Whales

Discovering the Blue Whale
Little Is Known About the Massive Mammal
By LINDA OWENS, March 3, 2009

They are capable of making sounds louder than a jet engine, but we can barely hear them. Known as the gentle giants of the sea, blue whales consume 7,000 pounds of tiny shrimp called krill daily, but still scientists know very little about the massive mammals.

"Blue whales have always captured everyone's imagination because they're so enormous. But what do we really know about them?" said Steve Palumbi, a population biologist.

A team of scientists tagged some blue whales off California's coast to learn more about the elusive animals.

Unlocking the mystery behind the blue whale's life cycle has become even more important because more are dying now than at any other time since a 1966 ban on whale hunting was enacted.

At one point hundreds of thousands of the animals swam in the world's seas, but the majestic creatures, which are the largest ever to live on Earth, are increasingly rare.

Even experts find themselves with more questions than answers. What they have noticed is evidence of a new threat to the endangered species.

In 2007 at least four beached blue whales were killed by fast-moving cargo ships.

Scientists hope that by learning more about the blue whale's migration paths, they'll be able to help adjust shipping lanes to avoid similar fates for other whales.

Off the coast of Costa Rica, a crew witnessed sharking, a courtship dance between the mammoth whales.

And the scientists now believe pregnant blue whales arrive in Costa Rica's warm water during their last trimester.

On their journey, the experts spotted a mother traveling with her very small calf  at least small for a whale.

Baby whales aren't tiny newborns. They come in at 25 feet long and are the largest babies on land or sea in the planet's history.

Though the researchers captured images of the baby blue on film, they missed the birth.

The pictures are the first ever of a baby blue whale caught on film.

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ENV: OES Salvation

Sources: Obama to shelve Bush species rule
Critics say rule weakened protections for endangered animals, plants
msnbc.com staff and news service reports, updated 10:35 a.m. CT, Tues., March. 3, 2009

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama was set to make a speech Tuesday at the Interior Department, where sources said he would shelve a Bush-era rule that critics say weakened protections for threatened and endangered species.

In December, the Bush administration finalized regulations that allow agencies to decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm animals and plants listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Bush-era rule reduces the mandatory, independent reviews government scientists have performed for 35 years. It also prohibits federal agencies from assessing a project's contribution to global warming when they evaluate its effect on species.

The Bush administration argued its rule would streamline development requests without harming wildlife.

Presidential memo expected
Administration sources said Obama will sign a presidential memorandum to put on hold the regulation until the Interior and Commerce departments complete a review of it.

The officials sought anonymity because they did not want to get ahead of the president's announcement.

At least for now, the two agencies will resume full scientific reviews of projects that might harm endangered wildlife and plants.

A conservation group that had sued to overturn the Bush-era rule welcomed the news.

"Obama has swiftly delivered on his campaign promise to reverse Bush’s anti-endangered species regulations," Kieran Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told msnbc.com. "He has restored independent, scientific oversight to the heart of the Endangered Species Act."

Congressional action
Democrats in Congress are attempting to reverse the rule via legislation. House Democrats wrote a provision into a spending bill that passed last month, leading Republicans to cry foul.

"This is a backdoor maneuver to create vast new climate change powers without any public comment or involvement of the American people," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The Senate has yet to act on the issue.

Since taking office six weeks ago, Obama has directed his Cabinet to reverse or review four Bush-era environmental and energy rules. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has shelved drilling plans off the East and West coasts, as well as on federal land in Utah. He also shelved a plan to open up areas to oil-shale development. Those plans will be reviewed, he said.

And Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, last month agreed to review whether it should regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, portending a major reversal of the Bush administration's policy on global warming.

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