Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Of Monarchs and Men

Bound for Mexico?
Two to three, then three to four, then twenty or so flitted above the trees and across the path to the prairie. Over the acres of prairie, there were more, settling onto rough blazing star, a favorite, or goldenrods, sunflowers, lobelia. Monarchs are hard to count (and harder to photograph I found) because they are more skittish than birds, they disappear into an infinity of grass, and they collapse into a barely visible line when they turn and close their wings.

While summer heat can still top 80 degrees, some maple trees have decided to break the news that fall is coming with branches tinged red. The monarchs I saw in the prairie reserve may have been hatched there--milkweed, the pablum of the caterpillar, is abundant. Or maybe they had already traveled from Canada. Unlike the butterflies who saw birth, metamorphosis and death in the spring, in early summer, in midsummer, these may have a life span not of two weeks, but like their great-grandparents, of long winter months. And they won't just flutter from milkweed to blossom--they will travel over 2,000 miles to the high altitude fir forests of Mexico,  a pilgrimage to the oyamel--the Abies religiosa  or Sacred Fir.
Yes, Monarchs are migrants. While their border crossings may appear apolitical, their shifting states of residence become entangled with economic and diplomatic issues. Monarchs draw tourists to Mexico to see the tens of millions turning a tree from a thing of needles to a thick drapery of wings. But habitat all along the way is threatened. Milk"weed" is more welcome than it once was, because it's become more widely known that it is the sole nursery for monarch eggs. As with just about everything, global warming plays a role, altering what plants thrive or die where and when. As always, there's human development.
The Audubon Society warns that deforestation linked to population growth eats away at Monarchs' winter retreat: "Aerial photographs of the region 30 years ago show a forest of nearly 2,000 square miles. Today, only a tenth of it remains. The largest tract today is 20 square miles, five times smaller than the largest tract 15 years ago." Population growth, according to this analysis, has contributed to use and destruction of forests, though there have been advances in this area. "The good news is that because of an aggressive family planning program, the fertility rate of Mexico has dropped from 6.1 in 1970 to 2.7 today and Mexico's population is 32 million lower than predicted 30 years ago." Then the other shoe drops: "The bad news is that demographic momentum is still expected to carry Mexico past the 135 million mark over the course of the next 30 years."
Meanwhile, human and animal lives are recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene's unusual course. It's hard to imagine a time in the past when  "Hurricane" and "Vermont" appeared in the same sentence. The Midwest sunflowers, however, rise oblivious to trees and plants and people fallen and swept away elsewhere. They wisely turn their faces to light and warmth.

  Maybe our human responses to change seem more complicated, though it's hard to comprehend how after 3 intermediary generations, a monarch can trace her ancestor's route from a prairie by a silty stream to mountains far south. A poet well aware of such complications is Amy Clampitt. The following is an excerpt from her tribute to her dead brother, "Urn-Burial and the Butterfly Migration":

an urn of breathing jade, its
          gilt-embossed exterior the
          intact foreboding of a future
          intricately contained, jet-
          veined, spangle-margined,
          birth-wet russet of the air-
          traveling monarch emerging
          from a torpid chrysalis. Oh,
          we know nothing

          of the universe we move through!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Death, Taxes, and Wolves

Where are the piggies?

Here's one and . . .

Here's more, thanks to cartoonist Kahlil Bendib

Taxes and wolves have much in common. Both are demonized as scourges of humankind. Both can play beneficial roles in sustaining a community--providing social services and protecting landscapes from destruction by ungulates. Republicans (and a number of Democrats) in certain states rail against both.
We'll return to taxes later--they never disappear for long. Current wolf controversy in the greater Midwest centers around the possible "delisting" of wolves as an "Endangered Species" deserving special protections under U.S. federal law. In Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where wolves roam northern forests, the population is about 4,000. In Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the number is about 1700, and many of those descended from wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. One ecologist who studies the Yellowstone wolves and hails from another wolf state--Dan MacNulty at the University of Minnesota, believes that the millions of federal dollars (a big number but a drop in the gov't budget) could be better directed toward species in more dire circumstances. (See "Wolf Pact" in Audubon Magazine.)
So why not follow the law and delist the wolves? Because there's resistance by conversation and wildlife groups to state management proposals, and the state proposals sound anything but wolf-friendly. In the Rocky Mountain/Yellowstone region, according to The Economist, the wolves "are a snaggletoothed symbol of big government gone mad." But it's the locals who are mad enough to shoot. As The Economist reports, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission authorized a lupine hunting season. A contingent of animal defenders are against all hunting, but many wildlife biologists have long thought that hunting--of deer, Canada geese, even predators--can deter animals from feeling too cozy in human presence and work in favor of ecological balance. However, wildlife principles lose out to varmit-killing in these debates. The Idaho proposal would allow the killing of 85% of the state's population of 1,000. A cousin to that proposal in Montana would permit a take of nearly half that state's wolves.  With these sorts of proposals, you get a debt-ceiling type stalemate where certain organizations say no taxes, oops, "no wolves," and others say don't touch the wolves' entitlements.
Oh, there are complications. Wolves do kill livestock--cows, sheep, horses--and good luck finding accurate numbers there. (Conservationists claim ranchers overestimate depredation; however, it is hard to prove wolf damage when one comes across a carcass on the open range.) Yes, wolves receive the benefit of tax dollars. So do Western ranchers, through the public lands grazing programs.
The Federal Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, a department you generally don't hear about unless they're accused of screwing up, manages the grazing permits and fees. Are the fees reasonable or do they amount to a federal subsidy for ranchers? Another hot debate. Speaking of hot, through the BLM website, you can sign up to fight wildfires, and the wildfires have been hot, hot, hot lately.
According to Daniel Glick, in Audubon Magazine again, climate warming in the Western states has fostered the conditions for "megafires": "The western fire season is now 205 days, 78 days longer than in 1986. What's more, there have been four times as many fires that wiped out more than 1,000 acres than there were in the 1970-1986 period, and six times as much acreage burned." In part, protecting ourselves against fires has, well, backfired. Natural fuels of grasses, shrubs, and forest debris build up. For this reason, some areas have prescribed burns to keep the fire danger lower and to reset a biological cycle. Where fires occur that are NOT superhot like the mega ones that sterilize soils, kill of wildlife in a large area, and damage water sources, Glick explains, the ash adds soil nutrients and diverse plant growth begins, while species from woodpeckers to morel mushrooms return. Like wolves and taxes, fires are part of a system that sets up a cycle of renewal that keeps a community moving forward rather than collapsing under the weight of a too-dominant presence, from elk herds to dead wood to social stagnation.
Regenerative fire, like roaming wolves and tax increases, sounds great if it occurs far away from where you are. It's easy to be sanguine about fire and wolf attack when you're in a low-fire danger, wolf-free, middle-class neighborhood. A fire historian at Arizona State University, Steven Pyne, tells Glick that the Australians are much better at protecting property from fire hazards. That's important knowledge, because more people are moving into Western fire zones in the U.S. (and into cougar territory, by the way). Taxes and fees can play a role in managing the kinds of development, much of it resort or second home residences, that moves into wild scenery. Glick takes aim at the sacred mortgage interest tax deduction: "Changing laws to eliminate a mortgage tax deduction for second homes or charging developers the full cost of public services (like putting out rural fires) would go a long way." If this reform were to occur, those who insist on having a second home despite the loss of a tax break could then debate where those federal dollars should go--to a mediation program between wolves and ranchers?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Moose Vs. Deer

How's my brain, Rocky?

You would think moose would win. They're bigger, they can take cold weather, they can team up with flying squirrels. But in Minnesota, Moose seem to be losing to deer.
In the forests of northern Minnesota, moose are dying off. A recent report from the state's Department of Natural Resources notes that in the northwest corner (the aspen/uplands biome), the population has dropped from several thousand to about a hundred. Thousands of moose still seem to be present in the northeast corner of boreal forests. There is also widespread feeding of deer across the North, to build up deer populations for viewing and for hunting. That may be part of the problem, because deer carry parasites that are more dangerous to moose, particularly brainworm.
Yes, brainworm does live in the brain (where it lays eggs), some of the time. For much of its life cycle the worm, actually a nematode if that means something to you, lives in various parts of the deer, moving about through stomach, throat, brain in ways that you'll find fascinating if you're scientifically inclined or attracted to all things gross. At some point, the parasite is deposited by way of fecal matter (that's a euphemism), to be consumed by snails or other gastropods (gastronomers in search of a delicacy?), and then the infected snails are ingested along with plants by white-tail deer, who generally don't seem much affected by the whole process. Moose, elk, or caribou do not show the same tolerance, and neurological disorders begin: the diseased animals circle, they stumble, they tilt their head, they seem to loose vision, and their hindquarters no longer support them. If the condition itself is not always fatal, the afflicted moose is certainly vulnerable to other problems. Since deer are the dominant carriers, it seems that reducing deer numbers might be beneficial to their suffering cousins.
The state wildlife or natural resources departments that seek to protect the moose get much of their income year after year from hunting licenses. So if they cut back on deer numbers, they may be shooting themselves in the foot, so to speak. The big game manager for Minnesota, Lou Cornicelli, feels the pinch (mixing metaphors now). He claims that "If we don't do anything, the end point [for moose] is fairly certain," then says of the desire to feed deer versus ending the practice, "If you want to pick a controversial topic, that's going to be it."
So are there way too many deer and not enough moose?
Unless you move to another state--location, location, location. In Maine, a smaller state but with more wet woodland habitat than Minnesota, the moose population is about 29,000.  There is a moose hunt, with prospective hunters buying lottery tickets in hopes of being among the few thousand who get to hunt the big weed-eater. As for white-tails, their population in Maine has been stressed by hard winters, coyotes, and loss of habitat according to some reports. I've found that a Google search on the Maine deer issue does not quickly yield clear data on deer numbers and, highly debatable, what "optimal" numbers might be--optimal for the deer, for the moose, for the coyotes, for the conifers, for the populated coast, for hunters? Many in that state, like the deer feeders in northern Minnesota, want to see deer numbers go up.  Deer still outnumber moose in Maine, about 9 times more, and the hunting numbers reflect that. About 2,000 moose are "harvested" in a season, while in 2010 over 20,000 deer were taken, an increase of 11% over the previous year. Yet 2011 Maine news stories about deer focus on the desire to increase the population, probably because deer hunting brings about $200 million into the economy annually.
If you want to find a place where deer are thick and people want them gone, go to the suburbs of the Twin Cities, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh. Maybe people there aren't worrying about brainworm nematodes, but there is landscaping to protect, lyme disease to avoid, and car accidents waiting to happen.
 For a more thoughtful read on Moose and the problems of hunting than anything provided above, I recommend Franklin Burroughs' essay which is reprinted in several nature writing anthologies: "Of Moose and a Moose Hunter".

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What a Dog Means

Yes, even The New Yorker has dogs, particularly in the days when James Thurber contributed his distinctive vision of canine attributes. A recent essay by commentator-at-large Adam Gopnik is part conversion story, part book review, and all dog. In the opening, Gopnik admits to being ignorant about dogs, to the point that he agrees with a friend who asserts that “Dogs are failed humans.” (Really, it’s because of humans who are “failed humans” that people turn to non-speaking hairy quadrupeds.)  He then narrates his daughter’s quest to get a dog, a well-researched quest that ends with a Havanese (formerly the little white dog of Havana) puppy named Butterscotch as resident of their New York apartment. Gopnik was expecting the trials of having a newborn baby in the house, but was happily surprised:
All the creature wanted was to please. Unlike a child, who pleases in spite of herself, Butterscotch wanted to know what she could do to make you happy, if only you kept her fed and let her play. She had none of the imperiousness of a human infant. [. . .] What makes kids so lovable is the tension between their helplessness and their drive to deny it. Butterscotch, though, was a born courtesan.
But besides “compelling sweetness,” Butterscotch occasionally indulged in a petite rampage, leading Gopnik to the question of how, when, why, wolves and dogs split somewhere on the evolutionary branch.
Me and  
and my cousin?

            For answers, many tentative and speculative, Gopnik turns to a number of recent and soon-to-be-released books. These include Edmund Russell, “Evolutionary History,” which supposes people captured wolf pups and then demurs that, given wolves’ intransigence to human commands, it is difficult to believe early peoples persisted with wild youngsters. Raymond and Lorna Coppinger in “Dogs” (2001) propose that dogs domesticated themselves, choosing to see what was offered by the circle of human warmth, cooking, and garbage. Mark Derr, in his forthcoming book “How the Dog Became the Dog,” focuses more on the evolving temperament and role of dogs. For Derr, breeding and training have created a regrettable shift from dog as partner and ally to dog as sycophant and totally needy dependent.  John Bradshaw in “Dog Sense” points to a different fate for many contemporary dogs: they are the wanderers and scavengers of mean streets. As Gopnik summarizes, “the usual condition of a dog is to be a pigeon.”
The different theories about how dogs came to be dogs hint that “the line between artificial and natural selection seems far less solid, and the role of man at the center far less fixed. Indeed Russell suggests that even our distinct breeds may be more drifts than decisions.”
Gopnik, from his stance as “the full authority of fourteen months of dog,” says these evolutionary and anthropological accounts neglect the simple concept that “people love pets.” Even “primitive” societies took in animals that served no useful purpose other than to just be there.  And dogs have a powerful role in our mythology: “The range of evolutionary just-so stories and speculations is itself proof of the way dogs have burrowed into our imaginations. Half the pleasure of having a dog, I could see, was storytelling about the dog.”
For another scientific approach to canines, he turns to Alexandra Horowitz’s “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know.” Besides detailing the significance of scents to a dog, Horowitz debunks the Cesar-Millan type emphasis on “pack” behavior: “Dogs, she explains, are domesticated animals, and to treat them as though they were still in a pack rather than long adapted to a subservient role in a human family is absurd as treating a child as though it were ‘really’ still a primate living in a tree” (50). Gopnik finds Horowitz’s arguments compelling, and acknowledges that she had previously worked at The New Yorker, while he is dismissive of Kathy Rudy’s “Toward a New Animal Advocacy.” He writes of the author’s academic premise: “Rudy believes that dogs have been as oppressed and colonized as Third World peoples have, and that what they need is not empathy but liberation. She has a confused notion of something that she calls ‘capitalism,’ which is somehow held uniquely responsible for the oppression of animals, including dogs.”  Gopnik’s critique is valid in that animals had been used and abused long before “usury” or “Marxism” entered the vocabulary, but in this attachment-centric article, he does not touch on factory farming, puppy mills, or the internet sales of animals. However, he has earlier admitted that he didn’t want to take time to search out a breeder with his daughter, so she “quietly decided she could live with a Manhattan petstore ‘puppy mill’ dog if she could check its eyes for signs of illness and its temperament for symptoms of sweetness.” Butterscotch seems fine, but Gopnik's decision suggests that when people deal with dogs, convenience wins over caution on a dog’s behalf. Nor does he discuss how apartment life, like modern affluent life in general, excludes much of what could be part of a dog's, and a human's, experience, so that almost the entire focus is on a protected and specific affective relationship.
There is no doubt that Gopnik has come to love his dog (he debates behavioral reductionism of both canine and human responses), to the point of becoming one of those dog people he used to mock. This essay is a pleasant introduction to several books and theories, and as a New Yorker piece Gopnik can skip the detailed logic and documentation of scholarly work to offer sweeping interpretations of the human and the dog: “Dogs have little imagination about us and our inner lives but limitless intuition about them; we have false intuitions about their inner lives but limitless imagination about them. Our relationship meets in the middle.” You can judge if indeed less than two years of dog ownership and lots of book reading have given Gopnik insights, not just into dogs but into human desires.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Beyond Bad News?

A Thing with Feathers

The Random Animal has spent the last week in a news-induced coma. It seems that politicians and speculators have decided that in order to save the economy, they must destroy it. Maybe, maybe, out of all the upheaval, corporations and financial institutions that are sitting on money will start creating new jobs in areas like Green Energy?
Yes, Hope is a thing with feathers, provided Hope doesn't get downgraded to Double A wishful thinking. Things with feathers are facing threats right now from energy production plans. Ideal resolutions are somewhere in the distant heavens, and the significant immediate concern is determining what projects or compromises are most sustainable.
A local headline announced about a week ago that a Wind Turbine Farm in a Mississippi River town could harm nesting eagles.  According to the article about a proposal for a 12,000 acre project (that's big),  "the developer could face civil or even criminal action under federal laws if a bald eagle or an even more rare golden eagle is felled by one of the massive blades."  A spokesman for the energy company claimed that the placement of 50 turbines is being planned so "they will cause the least harm to flying wildlife, from long-eared bats to loggerhead shrikes to eagles." He added that all projects had risks and said "I don't know that a wind farm has ever been built that didn't result in some bird or bat mortality."
The townspeople object--are they too adamant in their support of eagles?
It seems the anti-wind turbine group formed because residents didn't like the idea of turbines so close to their property. They didn't mention eagles until the birds' presence came out in the energy company's impact report. Then the protesters flocked (sorry) to the birds' defense. The protesters claim there are about 8 nests in the vicinity, the company says 2, and wildlife agencies count 4 to 6. It's hard to get unbiased evidence. IF the project moved several miles away, would eagles still be in the way? Would the protest group, once the project left their backyard, care?
Wind Turbines can hurt wildlife. I live in a town with two--two is not a big number, and birds are not found at the base. There are several possible explanations; the turbines aren't on migratory paths or right next to a large nesting site. But they're close enough to small wildlife habitats that owls, hawks, the odd coyote, a stray cat, and more, come by to see if there's an easy breakfast and if there is a songbird corpse, it disappears. That is NOT an endorsement of all wind turbine projects, and many environmental groups see greater threats in other sources of energy.
Like the Keystone XL pipeline. It would run from Tar Sands in Northwest Canada to Texas. The company already has other pipelines in place. Another company with oil lines in place (heard of Exxon?) did not advance its smeary reputation with a July 1 spill along the Yellowstone River in Montana. According to an EPA report issued today, August 9, the oil from that Silvertip line break that wasn't captured in clean-up from the river banks is "degrading naturally in the environment." Let's hope that's true.The Silvertip line is done.
But that still leaves TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline in the works. The project requires permission from the U.S. Department of state to cross the international border. Ted Williams, writing in Audubon Magazine,  fears for the birds--and human residents along the proposed trail. As he explains in "Tarred and Feathered", the extraction of the oil means that at the Canadian end "the entire native ecosystem has to be bulldozed away, the tar sands below strip-mined." It gets better (or worse). The XL line "will be buried inside the largest underground reservoir on the planet--the Ogallala Aquifer, which charges rivers, lakes, and marshes and supplies drinking and irrigation water to eight states." And what runs through the pipe from Alberta to Houston? Diluted Bitumen, with "high concentrations of chloride salts, sulfur, abrasive minerals, and acids." Oh, and lots of carbon dioxide--perhaps 27 million metric tons--will be released annually in the entire process. What else is along the path? According to Williams, "habitat for 30 percent of the continent's land birds--at least 215 species." Included in that group are the sandhill crane and the still-rare whooping crane.
Worst case scenarios can be imagined, and it seems that internationally politicians, economists, and media people have been excellent at presenting worst-case scenarios on debt and investment. There are real concerns, but elements of the crisis seem to exist in computer simulations and spreadsheets and political campaigning. Time to get outdoors, look at a non-virtual landscape, before slipping back into a coma. . .
More Things with Feathers

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