Biden is protecting the land where the fat bears thrive

Fat Bear Week 2021 is here! The brown bears of Katmai National Park and Preserves gorged on 4,500-calorie salmon during the summer, and have now surpassed 1,000 pounds. The annual competition to determine the fattest bears in Alaska is being held. Voting can be done online from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5. Mashable will follow all the ursine activity.
The Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska, which is home to the largest sockeye salmon runs on Earth, is a wild and thriving ecosystem that fires on all cylinders.

The result? The result? Extremely obese, successful bears, including those found in Katmai National Park & Preserve.

Trump's administration made it difficult to see the natural beauty and natural wealth of this wild area. Northern Dynasty, a Canadian mining company, wanted to create a copper-and-gold mining district in Bristol Bay. It would include roads, power stations and a 188-mile long gas pipeline. The project would also include wastewater treatment plants, new ports, and a mine up to 2,000 feet in depth. The Trump administration rejected the 2014 report by the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency that such a project could have "significant and unacceptable adverse impacts" on the region. The Trump administration instead gave new life to the project by allowing the Pebble Mine's formal environmental review to be conducted.

The project was opposed by the majority of Alaskans. Many ecologists, biologists and fishery experts were horrified at the prospect of such a mine. Joel Reynolds, a senior lawyer and western director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (an environmental advocacy group), told Mashable that the project was "absolutely absurd". How can America be made great again by helping this Canadian company that is underfunded?"

The Trump administration expired in December and the permit for the crucial mining project was not granted. However, Bristol Bay will likely see many more mining proposals (including those from Northern Dynasty), in the years ahead.

In September, the Biden administration announced its first plans for permanently protecting this wild and bountiful land to conserve this ecologically-rich watershed. It's considered prudent by ecologists.

Carl Safina of Stony Brook University, an ecologist, stated that protecting Bristol Bay is the most important land-use decision in North America.

"The Bristol system, and its rivers, are truly a treasure of the world"

Safina said, "The Bristol system's rivers and their lakes are truly a treasure in the world. Something that should continue to bring riches to people and other wildlife that rely upon salmon." It needs federal protection because it is an intact system that works for both people and wildlife, particularly salmon.

The Bristol Bay watershed. The proposed Pebble Mine is marked by the star. Katmai lies south of the star. Credit: EPA

How to Protect Bristol Bay

Katmai and some areas of Bristol Bay are protected from development in high numbers. The EPA of the Biden administration will use the Clean Water Act to protect the entire, vast Bristol Bay region. This strong law allows the agency's to regulate pollution that is discharged into U.S. waterways. However, using the law to protect Bristol Bay takes time. It is a more complicated administrative process.

Taryn Heimer (an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who oversees the organization's Bristol Bay work), said that the process could take up to a year. Mashable was told by a spokesperson for the EPA that the agency is working "immediately to protect the Bristol Bay Watershed," but doesn't have a time frame.

The EPA has already taken the first and most important step of the process. A federal court ruled that the Trump administration's 2019 decision to withdraw the protections for Bristol Bay proposed by the Obama-era EPA was not fair. The court found that the Trump administration failed sufficiently to prove that the mine would have serious impacts. The court remanded the Trump-era reversal to another federal court for further review. On Sept. 9, the Biden-led EPA requested that this court basically reject Trump's 2019 withdrawal. The court would grant the request to reinstate the original proposal from 2014 Obama.

The EPA has indicated that it is going to make the "proposed determination" from 2014, which was in limbo due to long litigations, into a "final determination" to give the watershed protection for the long term. Michael S. Regan, EPA Administrator, recently stated that the "proposed determination" from 2014 was not finalized due to lengthy lawsuits. The final determination will give the watershed long-term protection.

Heimer stated, "This decision puts us back on the right track." "Permanent protections now are possible."

She added, "We got derail and now we're back."

Brown bears fishing at McNeil River Falls north of Katmai National Park. Credit: Drewhh/ Wikimedia Commons

The EPA will probably seek public input on their proposal to protect Bristol Bay. The agency isn’t just starting from scratch. They can draw on the scientific research done by the Obama administration in 2014. This work found that the Pebble Mine would cause irreparable damage to the environment and wildlife of the region. The original proposal of the Obama-era EPA greatly limited the damage a mine could cause to Bristol Bay. Heimer explained that the agency might now prohibit large-scale mining.

The EPA will use a powerful but seldom used part of the Clean Water Act to give Bristol Bay long-term protection. It is Section 404(c). The EPA has the "veto authority" (the "veto power") to "restrict or deny, deny or withdraw the use of a area to discharge pollutants into water if it "will cause unacceptable adverse effects on municipal waters supplies, shellfish beds, fishery areas, wildlife or recreational areas." The EPA can say no to a potential mining permit granted by another agency in Bristol Bay.

In its 50-year history, the EPA has used its 404(c), authority only 13 times. Heimer said, "It's such an effective tool, but they use it sparingly."

Wild treasure

Biologists stress that even a small mine in one part of the sprawling Bristol Bay could be devastating to its salmon productivity. Mashable reported previously:

Research has shown that the vitality of the smaller parts of the larger watershed determines the stability and productivity in Bristol Bay Alaskan rivers. One small area of the river system can be extremely productive in one year and support or stabilize a river's salmon population. Other areas may have lower fish numbers.

Mashable's Sean Brennan, a postdoctoral researcher at Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and the lead author of the study, stated that "Different chunks and components tend to be more important in a given years." "Any year could have some very small areas that are disproportionately significant."

Healthy salmon runs and fat bears depend on clean watersheds that allow the natural world to thrive. For most Alaskan scientists and locals, the risk of destroying a significant portion of this beautiful ecosystem is unacceptable.

"At the end, are we really willing to risk what is truly one mother nature's wonders for copper and gold?" Mashable spoke to Norm Van Vactor, a Bristol Bay resident in 2019. "I don’t think so."

SEE ALSO: These are the very fattest bears

The Upper Talarik creek (shown here), flows through the Bristol Bay watershed. Credit: EPA

Ecologists warn that once one mine is in, it opens the door to more destruction. The Pacific Northwest salmon fisheries are now in serious decline due to overfishing and damming. There are many endangered salmon species.

Safina, an ecologist, noted that salmon have been dying out to the south.

"We are not alone in this world, and we don't matter the most."

Safina and other ecologists believe that protecting Bristol Bay is about protecting the natural world. A world where fat bears can thrive.

Safina stated, "Our job is respect for the rest of creation and living world, to hold them with reverence and to treat them with restraint." "We are not alone here and we do not matter.