Category Archives: Seasons

Beyond the Jeep Road Sits Coyote — Wilderness in 2015

Southwestern desert

Southwestern desert

By Levi Old

On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.

After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.

“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.

“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”

I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.

The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness.

The students arrived set to journey through wilderness, the classic romanticized remote landscape, and a wilderness of their mind, body and souls. Students often do not realize that they will travel through a type of land designated by law as Wilderness.

The Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964 designates lands that are separated from roads and motorized use. The act is the federal government’s strictest land preservation law. In 2014 the country celebrated the Act’s 50th Anniversary. The question remains open and often debated by private property activists, business, economists, environmentalists, and others: “Does wilderness still matter?”

Yes. Wilderness is more relevant and timely than ever. Wilderness preserves pockets of ancient ecosystems — from coasts, to endangered grassland prairies, to piedmonts and fragile alpine systems. They remain largely intact. Nearby human communities receive a boost in tourism, and recreational users travel to these wild places for respite. Lyndon B. Johnson said upon signing the bill into law:

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

In 1964, there were 54 Wilderness designations in 13 states totaling 9 million acres. The first Wilderness Area designations included the Gila in New Mexico. The original bill laid the foundation for many other Wilderness bills, some of which were passed into law.

Today there are more than 750 Wilderness Areas from coast to coast. These wild landscapes exist in this country because of the forethought and persistence of conservation leaders.

The Wilderness movement is one of the few times in history in which we as a society designated places set aside for what they are and set at a distance from the human species ability to dominate, take and destroy the very things that help us survive. Wilderness lands are dedicated to preserve havens for clean-water, carbon sequestration, fish and wildlife, and recreation.

Wilderness areas provide the headwaters habitat for clean water sources that reach many of our country’s largest cities: Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle and New York, to name a few. The roadless nature of these areas also makes them valuable fish and wildlife habitat. The law allows regions of our country’s landscape to remain inhabitable by large predators and serve as an example and testament of biodiversity and ecological processes. These wild places include home to grizzly bears, elk, and wolves, and watersheds where native salmon and trout maintain their genetic integrity.

Three-Fingered Jack in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area, Oregon

Three-Fingered Jack in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area, Oregon ©Levi Old

Wilderness draws humans in for many reasons. They arrive to separate from their everyday existences. To vision quest. To challenge comfort zones. To rejuvenate.

The students on these wilderness courses often look to escape the symptoms that follow hours spent in front of a screen, or those times when the hand drives itself to the cell phone on its own. Many seek to separate from the trauma of war or family troubles. For others the symptoms may arise in traffic jams, or walking on concrete so often that the body forgets the intricate features of wild, naked earth.

There are others who are content with the notion that wilderness solely exists:

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in,” said writer and Wilderness advocate, Wallace Stegner. “For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Wilderness is a victory in this country’s heritage and an Act and idea that deserves and needs to be defended. Even within the environmental movement itself, the debate continues as to whether these places exclude humans too much. There is a belief among many that we should intermingle in the environment and not feel as though we need to separate ourselves from it and that the concept of Wilderness separates humans further from nature.

Mending Old and New Practices

The leap into the 21st Century passed. The country is in a continuous war for resources. Our earth’s population is over 7 billion and predicted to grow towards as many as 10 billion in 2050 (the elephant in the room). Today’s movement towards ecological peace or “the environmental movement” has deepened the longstanding discussion on the value of setting aside preserved lands. The environmental movement, once driven by large policy and conservation of public lands, now has a new, or at least more diverse presence.

Giant Mountain Wilderness, New York ©Levi Old

Giant Mountain Wilderness, New York ©Levi Old

The neo-environmentalists have treaded bravely into new territories. More young farmers stake claims each year to grow local food, tend soils, and use sustainable agriculture. Urban planners are improving public transportation to offset carbon use and cut down on pollution. River restoration groups remove dams so that salmon can once again swim to their native birth grounds and reestablish themselves as staples of cultural tradition and food sovereignty (a role they held for thousands of years).

Universities and Walmarts employ sustainability coordinators who wash shades of green into their operations. Even permaculture, a regenerative way of living, commonly appears in the national press.

Each of these steps forward is part of a story’s thread — the story of a battle upstream for humanity and earth’s natural systems. They’re not separate, yet woven like an orb weaver’s web — like the web each student will navigate throughout life.

The modern environmental movement’s new approaches should make any longtime fighter in this work proud. However, it should not allow us to sit still or dismiss victories of the past and their value in the present. At the closing of the Act’s 50th year, we celebrated the role of Wilderness in our country’s past and future. In 2015 and beyond, however, our work must continue. The managed landscape cannot be mistaken for unmanaged country.

Looking at the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, Montana

Looking at the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, Montana    © Levi Old

One loss in the walls of Washington, and this Act could be stripped of its foundations, making wild lands exposed to numerous threats. Direct attacks on the law take place each year in our nation’s capitol.

One bill (H.R. 4089), for example, pushed by the extractive industries and disguised as pro-hunting legislation would have allowed motorized use and other development in protected Wilderness areas. It passed the U. S. House, but died in the Senate. These bills have the ability to destroy the hard work and value of these unmanaged landscapes.

We should not be fooled that Wilderness areas are completely devoid of human impact. Not only are humans visitors to Wilderness areas, the interconnectedness of ecological systems makes non-native species, climate change and air pollution among the many threats to these lands. These landscapes are delicately chosen because they are like no other areas — for their values to humans and ecological processes.

Named after the famous conservationist, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area in the Everglades National Park represents the woman who fought hard to protect this ecosystem of cypress marshes and mangrove forests. She secured a future for Miami’s water source and a haven for biodiversity. She stated at the beginning of her book, The River of Grass:

“There are no other Everglades in the world.”

Everglades National Park, home of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area

Everglades National Park — home of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area

Will we let these special places be exploited for short-term benefit, or will we fight to maintain and protect more? The younger generation and new breed of environmentalists can step up and lead the charge, mending new conservation techniques with foundations like the Wilderness Act.

Fracking and Fire

On the expedition’s final night we sat around telling stories, and Ben reflected on the gratitude he felt for the places set aside from our own species ability to fragment and destroy. He said he appreciated the lack of roads or drill rigs in the Wilderness areas we traveled throughout the course. He told a story about his home in eastern Wyoming, where drills checkered the landscape and trucks carried water to natural gas fracking operations.

The boom really changed the sagebrush steppe landscape where he grew up. He spoke about how the land’s value to human needs will outlast the natural gas extraction, and he hoped it would not ruin his hunting and fishing grounds, or his family’s water source.

Out here we know that there are wild landscapes protected by the Wilderness Act, which we learned about on course, he explained. “What forethought went into the protection of these places,” Ben said. “Those advocates were wise and planning for future generations. I would like to be one of those people.”

That night we sat in a cliff-side cave overlooking an arroyo. After weeks of challenging herself with primitive fire techniques, Lily started the fire we sat around. She also canoed, backpacked, wrestled with group leadership, communication, cooking, and a fear of heights — all under the guidance of Wilderness.

Each night Ben, Lily and our expedition crew stargazed far from city lights. As an educator, Wilderness provides me the finest of classrooms, a wild place that doubles as a wise mentor. That evening, I sensed we all knew that Wilderness can be harsh, often unforgiving, yet rewarding beyond the best author’s and the best speaker’s words.

As we went to bed, coyotes yipped into a light covering of cirrus clouds.

Rare pocket of thousand year-old, old growth Pacific Yew trees. Indian Creek, Frank - Church River of No Return Wilderness

Rare pocket of thousand year-old, old growth Pacific Yew trees. Indian Creek, Frank – Church River of No Return Wilderness ©Levi Old

Douglas, M.S. (1947). The Everglades: River of Grass. New York, NY: Rinehart & Company.

Govtrack.us. (n.d.). H.R. 4089 (112th): Sportsman’s Heritage Act of 2012. Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4089

The Wilderness Society. (n.d.). General Format. Retrieved from http://wilderness.org/article/wilderness-act

 

Shadows and Sex

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Red Squirrel / © Bryan Pfeiffe

By Bryan Pfeiffer

YOU DON’T NEED PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL to know which way the wind blows. Groundhog Day ain’t about shadows. It’s about sex. Birds and rodents are beginning a season of foreplay.

No, spring is not around the corner – at least not here in Vermont. Songbirds don’t rely on the vagaries of weather to calculate their breeding cycles. Instead, they schedule mating and nesting to take advantage of a reliable abundance of food for their offspring, mostly insects, which happens in May and June here at our latitude. As the days grow longer, birds do get ready to, well, um, make more birds. It’s why we’re starting to hear Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, House Finches and other birds errupting into song on sunny mornings.

Black-capped Chickadee / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Black-capped Chickadee / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Day length is a far more reliable calendar than weather. It is not entirely clear how birds measure day length, but we do know that photo-receptors in bird brains sense increasing light. It triggers the production of hormones that act like birdie Viagra. Their sexual organs revive from a state of dormancy. So when the food is there in May, songbirds will be ready … you know, physically.

February 2 is indeed significant. It falls about halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, a period celebrated in various ways in human traditions from Paganism to Christianity. And early February is when we start to get 10 hours of daylight – February 5 this year. It seems to be a turning point for wildlife.

But why the groundhog? Couldn’t we have picked a loftier critter to represent the coming of the light? As it turns out, this rodent is indeed a worthy messenger of spring. In February, woodchucks begin to emerge from hibernation on the prowl. They need to breed soon so that females produce litters during greater food abundance in April and May. Males emerge from their burrows to find and visit with females. But many of these early encounters are merely courtship visits, which pay dividends, research suggests, when it comes time to breed a bit later. It’s sort of like another February ritual – Valentine’s Day.

Squirrels aren’t so tactful. Female red squirrels are in estrus, receptive to males for breeding, for about eight hours on only a single day during this season. And male squirrels outnumber females in the wild by as much as five to one. The consequence of this skewed gender ratio and hard-to-get females is that life during the breeding season can be, to say the least, challenging for the male. He’ll spend lots of time following her in the days before she is in estrus. Should the male be too forthcoming, too eager before she is ready, she will rebuff his advances with a swat to the face or a painful bite. (I hate it when that happens.)

And when those precious eight hours finally arrive, a male is hardly alone in this drama. He often must compete with or fight other males for her affections – actually for a copulation that might last only about 20 seconds. Out there in the trees, it’s a free-for-all. “To the casual observer, what ensues is probably best described as pure and unadulterated chaos,” write biologists Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski in their fantastic book, North American Tree Squirrels.

So let’s recognize the real significance of Groundhog Day. This isn’t a holiday about six more weeks of winter. It’s a celebration of romance, even if it turns out to be unadulterated, chaotic rodent romance.

Partial Migrants: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

By Sonia DeYoung

Outside my window, a robin pecks around in the rain. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and the forecast calls for the rain to turn to snow tonight in my Massachusetts hometown. So why isn’t this robin right now flying south toward a warm, easy winter?

American robins are facultative partial migrants:  they decide each year whether to migrate

American robins are facultative partial migrants: they decide each year whether to migrate

Casual birdwatchers see robins as harbingers of spring, but you can actually find them year-round throughout much of the U.S. Based on my own observations, robins seem to stick around more now than they did twenty years ago—perhaps global warming plays a role in that trend (see November 6 post). But climate change can’t explain why some robins flee wintertime and others take their chances.

[Update: The day after publishing this post, I stumbled across an article by biologist Mark Davis saying that more robins stay in the north for the winter now because of a greater winter food supply: they happily eat the berries of several increasingly common non-native species.]

Many birds, like warblers and hummingbirds, migrate annually no matter what. Others, including robins, kingfishers, and chickadees, are “partial migrants”: within a single population in a given year, some will migrate and some will not. Backyard birdwatchers who rejoice in the first robin of spring aren’t necessarily unobservant. There are fewer robins around in winter, and those that do stay often roost in bogs and swamps instead of backyards. Each year, a robin must decide based on the available food supply whether to migrate; a snowy winter landscape can never provide as much food as the same land in summer. Some robins may even leave mid-season if the conditions turns especially harsh.

They’re taking a gamble either way. Birds who reside year-round in temperate climates risk a 50-80% chance of death each winter. Migrants do a little better, with at most a 50% chance of death. But they invest a great deal of time and energy in migration that they could have put toward reproduction. Temperate residents make up for their high winter death toll with their better success raising offspring.

European robins are obligate partial migrants: genes determine which members of a population will migrate

European robins are obligate partial migrants: genes determine which members of a population will migrate

Not all partial migrants have to make this annual choice. Within a single population of European robins (not closely related to American robins), genes dictate which individuals will migrate and which will stay. With these birds, migrants are born, not made. Gene-determined migrants like European robins are called obligate partial migrants, while American robins are examples of facultative partial migrants.

Still other kinds of migrants do make a choice, but it’s a group decision. Evening grosbeaks and snowy owls, for instance, will leave their typical wintering grounds en masse if the autumn produced a poor seed crop. Then they pop up in unexpected places in what’s called an irruption: an unpredictable winter boom of birds.

The robin outside my window, though, didn’t have the advantage of consensus to decide where to spend this winter. She reminds me that animals are individuals who must make daily life decisions based on their experiences. Watching her hunched under the cover of a dripping rhododendron, I hope she made the right one.

Information gathered from The Handbook to Bird Biology published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul; and the Audubon Society and Smithsonian field guides to North American birds.

 

Freshwater Sharks

Snorkeling in frigid waters for a species at-risk

By Levi Old                                                               

Salvelinus confluentusOn a dead-still summer night, I army-crawl upstream.

“We have a large adult!” says Jen.

I rise to one knee and pull the fogged snorkel mask off my head. “A big one?” I mumble in a haze.

“Yeah, really big. Much larger than I’ve ever seen this far up the creek,” she replies, pointing to where it kicked its caudal fin gently against the downstream flow. “It’s right there beside you.”

I cinch the mask on my face, place the snorkel in my mouth, and dunk back into the frigid water:

Twenty-six inches of wildness.

Jen pops her head out of the water and says, “Isn’t that just a beautiful creature?”

She snorkels one side of the creek and I snorkel the other. An assistant in waders walks the creek, tallies our fish sightings and makes sure we do not go hypothermic.

Jen O’Reilly, a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, leads the recovery effort for the Odell Lake population of bull trout, a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act. The recovery team consists of US Forest Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited. In order to monitor recovery of bull trout, biologists conduct an annual juvenile count in Trapper Creek, the only known spawning location for this population.

Trapper Creek is a tributary to Odell Lake. In the shadow of Oregon’s Diamond Peak, the lake lies in a glacier-carved basin physically detached from the Deschutes River by a 5,500 year-old lava flow. The flow enclosed the lake, genetically isolating this population of bull trout.

At midnight this past July, ten of us in dry suits and thick neoprene hoodies shimmied up different reaches (Fig. 1) of Trapper Creek. Shallow in most places, the snorkel is more of a crawl and scramble than a leisurely swim upstream. Even in mid-summer Trapper Creek is icy cold.

We closely observed the nooks of each piece of in-stream wood and dove into pools where rapids converged and bubbles enveloped our sightlines. We held dive lights, counted each fish and estimated its size class. We kept our eyes peeled for the creek’s bull trout.

Bull Trout – A species at-risk from Levi Old on Vimeo.

Named for their broad heads, bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) serve as apex predators in aquatic systems of the West. Often called “Dolly Varden (S. malma),” they are in fact a separate species. Bull trout exist in less than half their historic range and prefer clean, cold waters. As a member of the char genus, they grow to be shark-like beasts in comparison to their trout relatives. Bull trout can measure up to 41 inches and weigh as much as 42 pounds.

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 9.34.32 PM
Figure 1: Trapper Creek runs north into Odell Lake. The three primary snorkeling reaches are labeled on the map (Richardson and Jacobs, 2).

The Trapper Creek bull trout population is known as the only adfluvial, non-reservoir population of bull trout in Oregon. During the 20th century, the building of railroads, construction of revetments, and removal of woody debris turned the creek into a large ditch of rushing water, unsuitable for spawning bull trout.

In 2003, this all changed. The recovery team restored the channel to increase spawning and rearing habitat by deconstructing revetments, placing woody debris and rebuilding a meandering channel. The annual snorkel count of juvenile bull trout increased from 26 in 1996 to 150 in 2005. Restoring, sustaining and monitoring native habitat is crucial to the survival of this iconic species.

If you find yourself on western waters, keep an eye out for these stream predators. Light spots of yellow, red and orange cover their dark bodies, and a white margin can be found on the leading edge of their ventral fins. And watch out, anglers: they will steal a hooked fish right off of your line.

Enjoy the video:

Bull Trout – A species at-risk from Levi Old on Vimeo.

Sources:
  • Montana Water Center. (2009). Trapper Creek. Retrieved on October 16, 2014, from http://wildfish.montana.edu/Cases/browse_details.asp?ProjectID=36.
  • Richardson, Shannon and Jacobs, Steve. (2010). Progress Reports. Retrieved on October 16, 2014, from http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ODFW/NativeFish/pdf_files/Odell_BT_Report_final.pdf.

Why our bodies need those blue-sky days

387374_939936702278_1594645291_nBy Nikki Bauman

The contrast of fresh powdered snow amplified by a background of cerulean vastness is one of nature’s finest vistas.  Fellow outdoor enthusiasts refer to these conditions as “bluebird” days, a term routinely followed with hooting, hollering, and high-fiving between friends and strangers gathering on the ski hill to worship the good weather.

Why do we have more fun in the sun?  It isn’t the scenery; it’s chemistry.  As living organisms, harvesting energy from the sun is crucial for regulating homeostasis. Our bodies literally crave sunshine, especially in the winter when it’s harder to come by as days are shortened, offsetting our mood as a result.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, sending signals from neurons to target cells.  It is one of the oldest components of the nervous system found in the Animal Kingdom, derived over a billion years ago from a line of molecules releasing energy derived from the sun.  In sea urchins, it controls appetite.  In higher order mammals, it regulates sleep patterns. In humans, it functions as an anti-depressant to regulate the brain’s emotional state. Continue reading

A “Solst-Ice” Report: The Season’s First “Big Chill”

DSCN7727By Matt Pierle

In the aftermath of a backwoods Solstice party in Lamoille County we awoke to a small mountain of dishes and no electricity. The longest night of the year had wrapped us in an icy bear hug.

Cold rain followed by dropping temps had frozen everything stiff.  Tree trunks, branches, rocks – anything not moving fast enough to dance off the cold crystalline bonds – was treated to an icy exoskeleton.

As more precipitation came, the ice coats thickened. The substrate for later drops to adhere to grew as the ice put on layer after layer. Classic positive feedback.

Next year’s already-formed buds and catkins, shelf fungi, conifer needles, marcescent oak and beech leaves were all locked inside one-quarter to a full inch of ice. The forest and hill farm landscape performed back-to-back versions of John Cage’s 4’33”.

NPR news from a crank-operated radio reported, “hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power in Michigan, New York, and the Northeast”– no doubt a result of trees and frozen limbs coming down on overhead transmission lines. Continue reading

In Search of Herps

SpottedSalamander800x600April showers bring more than May flowers, and birds aren’t the only creatures producing fantastic choruses in the springtime. While birders will set their alarms for 5:00am in order to catch the rainbow of spring migrants arriving in Vermont, herpetologists – that is, aficionados of amphibians and reptiles – will spend the wee hours of the night up to their knees in muck and water to glimpse the bizarre courtships of frogs and salamanders.

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Lessons from Snow Geese

SnowGeeseBeating wings fill my view. The snow geese are stark white, and the black tips of their wings pulse in contrast with their bodies. Hundreds – no, thousands – of these meaty birds move in unison. They squawk and honk, thousands of calls melting into an urgent and persistent roar.

At least that’s what I envisioned.

I had never seen snow geese, but I set out confidently to find the birds. I wanted to feel the wind from a thousand birds taking off at once. I wanted to feel their thunderous calls in my chest. Continue reading

Trapped Under the Ice

iceStaying warm in the winter is hard. Chickadees eat constantly in order to survive long, cold winter nights. Squirrels spend precious time and energy creating complex insulated nests. Deer browse on nutrient-poor twigs to get as many calories out of their surroundings as possible. Yet compared to fish and other aquatic organisms, terrestrial wildlife breathe easy – literally. As fish battle the cold through the long winter, they are steadily running out of oxygen.

Continue reading