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National
AP
Butterfly on a bomb range: Endangered Species Act at work

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — In the unlikely setting of the world’s most populated military installation, amid all the regimented chaos, you’ll find the Endangered Species Act at work.

There, as a 400-pound explosive resounds in the distance, a tiny St. Francis Satyr butterfly flits among the splotchy leaves, ready to lay as many as 100 eggs. At one point, this brown and frankly dull-looking butterfly could be found in only one place on Earth: Fort Bragg’s artillery range.

Now, thanks in great measure to the 46-year-old federal act, they are found in eight more places — though all of them are on other parts of the Army base. And if all goes well, biologists will have just seeded habitat No. 10.

One of Earth’s rarest butterfly species, there are maybe 3,000 St. Francis Satyrs. There are never going to be enough of them to get off the endangered list, but they’re not about to go extinct either. They are permanent patients of the bureaucratic conservation hospital ward.

In some ways, the tiny butterfly is an ideal example of the more than 1,600 U.S. species that have been protected by the Endangered Species Act. Alive, but not exactly doing that well.

To some experts, just having these creatures around means the 46-year-old law has done its job. More than 99.2% of the species protected by the act survive, The Associated Press has found. Only 11 species were declared extinct.

On the other hand, only 39 U.S. species — about 2% of the overall number — have made it off the endangered list because of recovery, including bald eagles and American alligators.

“Species will remain in the Endangered Species Act hospital indefinitely. And I don’t think that’s a failure of the Endangered Species Act itself,” says Jake Li, director for biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center in Washington.

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The Endangered Species Act “is the safety net of last resort,” says Gary Frazer, assistant director of ecological services at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the law. “We list species after all other vehicles of protection have failed.”

The 1973 law, passed unanimously in the Senate, was designed to prevent species from going extinct and to protect their habitat. Under the law, it is unlawful to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect” endangered animals and plants, and it also forbids the elimination of their habitats.

Another species found at Fort Bragg — the red-cockaded woodpecker — is a case of success but at a cost of $408 million over 19 years.

The woodpeckers live only in longleaf pines, which have been disappearing across the Southeast for more than a century, due to development and suppression of fires.

In the 1980s and 1990s, efforts to save the woodpecker and their trees set off a backlash among landowners who worried about interference on their private property. Wildlife officials were even shot at.

Army officials weren’t happy either.

“We couldn’t maneuver. We couldn’t shoot because they were afraid the bird was going to blink out and go into extinction,” says former top Fort Bragg planning official Mike Lynch.

By the 1980s, the red cockaded woodpecker population was below 10,000 nationwide. Now, they’re well past 15,000 just on military bases.

After failed efforts, biologists and bureaucrats changed their approach.

Instead of prohibiting work on land the woodpecker needs, Fish and Wildlife Service officials allowed landowners to make some changes as long as they generally didn’t hurt the bird. The Army set fires to regularly burn scrub.

The result? When Fort Bragg Endangered Species Branch Chief Jackie Britcher started, in 1983, there were fewer than 300 woodpecker families on Fort Bragg. Now she counts 453 families.

“Something is going right,” she says.

The Army has better land to maneuver in and the community is taking pride in the woodpecker, Lynch says.

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From 1998 to 2016, the federal government tallied $20.5 billion in spending on individual species on the endangered list. That’s based on an annual per-species spending report that the Fish and Wildlife Service sends to Congress, but that tally is not comprehensive.

Seven species, mostly fish, ate up more than half of the money expended under the act, according to the annual accounting figures.

About $3 million was spent to save the St. Francis Satyr butterfly.

Nick Haddad, a Michigan State University butterfly biologist and St. Francis expert, regularly visits the artillery range.

He expected a moonscape, but found beauty.

Because no one was venturing into the woods there, no one was dismantling beaver dams or snuffing out fires. Aside from munition fragments, the landscape was much like North Carolina before it was altered by humans.

The picky butterfly needs a touch of chaos in its habitat. It requires water, but not a lot. It thrives on fire to burn away overgrown plants, but not too much.

Now, Haddad and his team replicate those conditions elsewhere on base, and they watch the butterfly population grow.

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After years of criticisms from conservatives that the endangered species program is too cumbersome for industry and landowners, President Donald Trump’s administration has enacted 33 different reforms.

Among them: a change in the rules for species that are “threatened,” the classification just below endangered. Instead of mandating, in most cases, that they get the same protection as endangered species, the new rules allow for variations.

That is better management, says the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Frazer, adding, “It allows us to regulate really only those things that are important to conservation.”

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director of the Center for Biological Diversity, characterizes the regulations as “a disaster.”

While scientists across the globe warn of the coming extinction of a million species in the decades ahead, Nick Haddad is determined that the St. Francis Satyr butterfly won’t be one of them.

“This is the thing that gives me hope,” Haddad says. “That’s where the Endangered Species Act had an impact.”


Washington
AP
Republicans assail security aide who reported Trump call

WASHINGTON — A career Army officer on assignment to President Donald Trump’s National Security Council testified Tuesday he felt it was his duty to object to Trump’s “improper” phone call seeking Ukrainian investigations of U.S. Democrats. Republicans answered him with doubts about his loyalty to the United States.

Arriving on Capitol Hill in military blue with medals across his chest, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman told impeachment investigators he felt no hesitation in reporting the president’s request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Vindman, a 20-year military officer who received a Purple Heart for being wounded in the Iraq War, was among the officials who listened in to the July 25 call when Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for a “favor” — investigations of Democrat Joe Biden and other issues.

“It was inappropriate, it was improper for the president to request, to demand an investigation into a political opponent,” Vindman told the House Intelligence Committee.

His testimony launched a pivotal week as the House’s historic impeachment investigation reaches further into Trump’s White House.

Democrats say Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden while withholding U.S. military aid to Kyiv may be grounds for removing the 45th president. Republicans have argued both that there was no linkage between the two matters and that there is nothing inappropriate even if there was.

Vindman testified alongside Jennifer Williams, an adviser in Vice President Mike Pence’s office. Both said they had concerns as they listened to Trump speak with the newly elected Ukrainian president about political investigations into Biden.

Trump insists Zelenskiy did not feel pressured and has cast the impeachment probe as a partisan affair aimed at pushing him from office.

It wasn’t the first time Vindman was alarmed over the administration’s push to have Ukraine investigate Democrats, he testified.

He highlighted a July 10 meeting at the White House when Ambassador Gordon Sondland told visiting Ukraine officials they would need to “deliver” before next steps — a meeting Zelenskiy wanted with Trump.

“Ambassador Sondland referred to investigations into the Bidens and Burisma in 2016,” he testified.

On both occasions, Vindman said, he took his concerns about the shifting Ukraine policy to the lead counsel at the NSC, John Eisenberg. Republicans later criticized him for not reporting to his direct supervisor.

An immigrant who came to the U.S. as a toddler from Ukraine, Vindman opened his testimony by assuring his father he would be “fine for telling the truth.”

Yet Vindman spent long stretches fielding Republican attacks on his loyalty to the U.S. and his career in public service. The Republicans’ lead counsel asked at one point about an offer to Vindman from a Ukrainian official to become the country’s defense minister.

Vindman called it “comical” and said he swiftly reported it up his chain of command.

“I’m an American,” Vindman said. “And I immediately dismissed these offers.”

Later Tuesday, the House committee was hearing from former NSC official Timothy Morrison and Kurt Volker, the former Ukraine special envoy. On Wednesday, Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, is to appear. In all nine witnesses are testifying this week as the probe deepens.

At the White House, Trump said he had watched part of the day’s testimony and slammed the ongoing impeachment hearings as a “disgrace.” Over the weekend, Trump assailed Williams as part of the “Never Trumpers” who oppose his presidency, though there is no indication she has shown any partisanship. Trump allies have also repeatedly attacked Vindman’s loyalty.

Vindman appeared prepared to defend his loyalty to the United States. When the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, addressed him as “Mr. Vindman,” the colonel reminded him to address him by his rank.

The colonel deflected repeated Republican efforts to divulge everyone he told about the Trump call — thwarting Trump allies’ attempts to identify the anonymous whistleblower who spurred the impeachment probe.

Nunes asked him and Williams who else they talked to about their concerns, bearing down once Vindman acknowledged one was from the intelligence community. The whistleblower is a CIA official, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Vindman said he does not know who the whistleblower is. He has previously said it is not him.

Trump ally Jim Jordan pressed Vindman if he ever leaked information. “Never did, never would,” Vindman testified.

Republicans were eager to hear during the afternoon from Morrison, who had supervised Vindman at the NSC. “He had concerns about Vindman’s judgment,” the White House tweeted.

But Morrison, who has since left the administration, told lawmakers he was not appearing to question his former colleagues’ “character or integrity” and does not intend to out the whistleblower.

Morrison, who was also listening to Trump’s call, worried its disclosure would not play well in polarized Washington, and reported it to the NSC lawyer. He testified about his sinking feeling as the military aid to Ukraine was stalled.

Vindman is being provided security by the U.S. Army and local law enforcement, according to a U.S. official. The official said the Army is prepared to take additional steps, if needed, including moving Vindman and his family to a more secure location on a base.

Williams, a career State Department official who has worked for three presidential administrations and counts former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a “personal hero,” said the Trump phone call was the first time she had heard anyone specifically seeking investigations from Ukraine.

The reference to Biden and his son Hunter “struck me as political in nature.”

Williams testified the Trump phone call was unlike about a dozen others she had heard from presidents over her career. When the White House produced a rough transcript later that day, she put it in Vice President Pence’s briefing materials. “I just don’t know if he read it,” Williams testified earlier in her closed-door House interview.

Pence’s role throughout the impeachment inquiry has been unclear.

The vice president’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, issued a statement saying he “heard nothing wrong or improper on the call.”

Vindman said Trump’s remarks strayed from the talking points prepared for him. And both witnesses noted the use of the word “Burisma” on the call. That was a reference to the gas company in Ukraine where Hunter Biden served on the board.

They both said Zelenskiy had mentioned “Burisma” on the call, but testified it was missing from the rough transcript released by the White House.

At the time of the call, the officials were just beginning to make the link with the stalled military aid — $391 million approved by Congress— that Ukraine was relying on as it confronts neighboring Russia.

Vindman said the uneven power dynamic between the presidents of the East European ally and the U.S. made the demand obvious.

“The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something ... it’s not be taken as a request, it’s to be taken as an order,” he said.


News
featured
New program aims to make crossing roads on Square safer for pedestrians

Crossing the four corners of the downtown Denton Square is soon going to get safer for pedestrians.

A new pilot program that goes into effect early next week will have an exclusive pedestrian phase so that when people cross, no car traffic at the intersection will move at all. The plan was presented and approved during a Denton City Council work session Tuesday afternoon.

Brian Jahn, the city’s traffic engineer, said pedestrians will push the button at the crosswalk and it will trigger lights in all four directions to go red at the same time. There will be enough time for a pedestrian to cross on foot across two streets or cross diagonally, he said. Additionally, this means cars won’t be able to turn on red at the four intersections.

“It increases the convenience for people walking. They have a better feel, it’s more inviting and the safety is enhanced,” Jahn said. “Again, we’re trying to get people out of their cars and feeling safe about walking around downtown. This goes a long way in promoting that pedestrian activity.”

Currently, when a light is green on Elm, Locust, Hickory or Oak streets the walk sign in the same direction will be on for pedestrians. Those on foot get a five- or six-second head start so they can become more visible in the crosswalk to car traffic moving in the same direction. But this can still be a problem as cars try to turn onto other streets though, creating clashes and delays with both pedestrians and vehicles, Jahn said.

Jeff Woo/DRC 

The city of Denton will add a pedestrian only phase at the four intersections surrounding the downtown Square. The move would halt all vehicular traffic so pedestrians can cross all ways and would signal a shift to prioritizing pedestrians downtown.

“I wasn’t satisfied with the ‘giving the pedestrians an edge’ plan, it felt like you get a little head start in the race of playing chicken against the cars, so I am thrilled for this,” City Council member Deb Armintor said.

Staff is bringing the plan to the Committee on Persons with Disabilities on Thursday night for feedback, and plans to implement the change on Monday. There will be new signs put at each of the 16 crossing points explaining the change, as well as new “no turn on red” signs at each traffic light.

It will take about a month to see if the new crossing configuration is working, Jahn said. The plan is to run the program for the next five or six months and get feedback before permanently implementing the change.

Mayor Chris Watts said in this pilot program he wants staff to be mindful of how the change impacts businesses downtown, too. He said he’s seen decreased traffic in some businesses as construction on surrounding streets has been off-putting for customers to park and walk up to the Square.

“I want to make sure we aren’t overburdening our Square with changes that will continue to impact business in a negative way,” he said. “I don’t know if this will or not. I would just hate to continue to put things on them that keep people from some respects from parking their vehicles and walking to the Square.”

If the pilot goes well, the only ongoing impact would be minor construction to the crosswalks, Jahn said. City staff will look at adding ramps at diagonal crossing points as well to make crossing diagonally a reality for people with disabilities if this becomes a permanent change.


Photos by Jeff Woo/DRC 

LEFT: Crews haul wreckage away from the scene.


Photos by Jeff Woo/DRC  

ABOVE: Motorists move at a slow pace along the frontage road late Tuesday morning near Ganzer Road as southbound traffic is stopped on Interstate 35 for crews to clear debris from a vehicle accident. Two 18-wheelers were involved in a crash early Tuesday morning, resulting in one catching fire, on Interstate 35 near FM1173. Denton police said they received reports of the crash just before 4 a.m. Police and the Denton Fire Department were dispatched to the scene. All northbound and southbound lanes were shut down following the crash, and northbound lanes were reopened at around 5:45 a.m. The southbound lanes were reopened by early Tuesday evening. No major injuries were reported.