National Bison Day

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November 1 is National Bison Day. You can get in on the celebration through the Beards for Bison campaign by visiting http://www.beardsforbison.org/ which is organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

While I adore all ungulates, next to pronghorn there is no North American ungulate that holds my fascination more than bison (Bison bison). They are an American icon and the largest land mammal in North America. During the months of January through May of 2009, I had the good fortune of interning at the North Carolina Zoological Park in the Northwoods Prairie section. The section includes red wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, elk and bison. The opportunity to work with such a combination of snorting beasts and large carnivorous mammals was indeed a thrill.

There are two recognized subspecies in North America: Plains bison (Bison bison bison) and wood bison (Bison bison athabascae). The historical range of plains bison extended from Northern Mexico to central Alberta. Wood bison range extended from central Alberta to Alaska.

North American bison graze and forage primarily in grasslands and meadows. Their historic range was the widest natural range of any North American herbivore, from the arid grasslands of Chihuahua State in northern Mexico, through the grasslands of the Great Plains, to the riparian meadows of interior Alaska. They can thrive in dry regions or deep snow, eating primarily grasses and sedges when resources are thin. Bison excavate snow by sweeping it away using side to side motions of their muzzle. In the summer and fall, they have a more varied diet that includes flowering plants, woody plant leaves, and lichens.

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In the 19th Century, we nearly lost bison throughout its entire North American range due to recreational hunting, market and subsistence. It is difficult for me to think of bison and not simultaneously replay in my head the scene from Dances with Wolves when the nomadic Lakota Sioux and John Dunbar, on a hunt for bison, come across a seemingly unending sea of dead bison, killed only for their hides and otherwise left to decompose. The numbers of bison destroyed and left to rot were in numbers far greater than wildlife could consume and certainly not fit for human consumption.

Fortunately, conservationists stepped in and took action before all was lost. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt and William Hornaday founded the American Bison Society (ABS) at the Bronx Zoo to save the bison from extinction. In 1907, Bronx Zoo staff sent 15 bison by train to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Preserve to help restore the western Plains’ depleted bison population. In 2005, Wildlife Conservation Society re-launched the American Bison Society, which built a network of bison experts, including ranchers, state, and provincial governments, Native American nations, scientists, and non-governmental organizations from western states, Mexico, and Canada, with the purpose of securing an ecological future of bison in North America over the next century.

But pressure on wild bison populations persists and they need all the public support that can be mustered. Bison are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as Near Threatened in light of its dependence on an ongoing conservation program and the fact that there are only five viable wild populations. There are approximately 19,000 total plains bison in 54 conservation herds (herds managed in the public interest by governments and environmental organizations), and 11,000 total wood bison in 11 conservation herds. Over 90 percent of bison today are under private ownership, raised like cows for bison meat. In fact at the turn of last century, ranchers often interbred bison with cattle to improve their cattle herds. Therefore, cattle genes are now present in many bison populations, and few genetically pure bison herds remain. Current policies and a tradition of fencing ranches discourage free-ranging bison herds in the West.

While bison have been “saved”, there is still much work to do. So sport your beard, real or otherwise, on November 1 and post your photo with #BeardsforBison on social media. Also, go to http://votebison.org/ and cast your vote for bison to be designated as America’s national mammal.

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The Things We Carry: Revisiting Holling Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea

The original 1941 cover for Hollis Clancy Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea.

The original 1941 cover for Hollis Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea, which was awarded the 1942 Caldecott Medal.

By: Richard Telford

The ratcheting hum of the 16-millimeter projector gave way to the roar of the dark ocean as Paddle-to-the-Sea, a small, one-foot-long canoe carved by the hands of a Nipigon boy in the far north of Canada, rose and fell among thick gray swells dimly lit by a leaden sky. It was during the mid 1970s, in the closing days of an elementary school year, and several classes, including my own, had been packed into a classroom to watch the 1966 National Film Board of Canada production of Holling Clancy Holling’s 1942 Caldecott Honor Book Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason.  It is a film I never forgot, and I have carried many images from it with me in the decades that followed:  the young boy carving his Paddle-to-the-Sea and pouring a line of molten lead for ballast in a groove cut along the hull; the boy’s hands placing Paddle atop a snow-covered hill, waiting for the spring melt to carry him away; Paddle-to-the-Sea floating through a series of beaver ponds while the surrounding landscape ripples with flame during a forest fire; and, finally, Paddle-to-the-Sea floating along the garbage-strewn surface of one of the Great Lakes, sewage being pumped in from great conduits.  Though the film was, for a child, a magical telling of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s journey to the sea from the deep north woods of Canada, that last image resonated with me as much as the others, though not more.

A film still from the National Film Board of Canada production of Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason.  Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

A film still from the 1966 National Film Board of Canada production of Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason. Janus Films has released a high-definition digital transfer of the film on DVD in The Criterion Collection.

Despite being largely true to the book’s content and intentions, Bill Mason’s film is far more overt in its conservation messaging than Holling’s book, first published in 1941, when war-time industrialism was ramping up and the insecticidal value of DDT had just been discovered two years earlier. While the book clearly aims to foster an appreciation for the North American watershed, the film exceeds the book’s original bounds, reflecting the precipitous rise in concern over water pollution that would set the stage for the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, one year before Holling would die due to complications of Parkinson’s disease.  The eco-politicization of the film, though it is not overly obtrusive and does not detract from the magic of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s journey, is a logical outcome of the time in which it was produced.  Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring, published in 1962, had just shocked the public consciousness with the vision of a world in which “only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh,” a landscape over which a “grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed.”

One year later, Stewart Udall, in his seminal 1963 book The Quiet Crisis, warned that “we live in a land of vanishing beauty, of increasing ugliness, of shrinking open space, and of an overall environment that is diminished daily by pollution and noise and blight.” Udall’s book, and more importantly its message, had garnered enough public clout—no doubt in part due to Carson’s efforts—to prompt President John F. Kennedy to write its Introduction less than a year before he would be assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.  Thus, Bill Mason’s film emerged in a time of environmental urgency.  He could juxtapose the beauty and magic of the Nipigon boy’s simple act of sending off his Paddle-to-the-Sea against the beauty and complexity of a vast watershed, just as Holling Clancy Holling had done 25 years earlier, but he could likewise frame it with the rising specter of water pollution.  While Holling had written to an American public deeply mired in a global war, in a time when industry reigned, Mason worked in a time when that magnificent and powerful hydrographic system had come to be seen as fragile, threatened, and fleeting.  Thus, his film had the potential both to appeal to children’s natural sense of wonder and, at the same time, to foster conservation-mindedness when it was desperately needed, both in children and adults.

Holling Clancy Holling, through his books and periodical illustrations, was a consummate educator, as was his wife Lucille, who, as an illustrator and writer herself, assisted him on many projects. While Paddle-to-the-Sea is an engaging story of the unlikely travels of the Nipigon boy’s “Paddle Person,” it is likewise rich with information related both to natural history and to modern industry of the 1940s, both of which Holling marvels at and praises.  This information is conveyed not only in the main text of the story, but also in pencil sketches superimposed around the margin of the text.  The book features twenty-seven one-page chapters of text, surrounded by copious pencil illustrations and hand-printed explanations, each facing a full-page watercolor illustration on the opposite page.  Holling teaches geography, for example, through these pencil sketches, showing through a series of drawings that “Lake Superior’s outline makes a wolf’s head” and Lake Huron “makes the outline of a trapper with a pack of furs.”  When Paddle-to-the-Sea passes through a sawmill in Chapter 7, only to be saved from the mill blade by a friendly lumberjack, Holling sketches onto the top margin of the text a complete “Diagram of a Sawmill.”  As Paddle-to-the-Sea makes its way across Lake Erie, Holling incorporates a “Diagram of a Lake Freighter,” breaking down the bulkheads, rudder chain, ballast tanks, and many other elements, facing a watercolor painting of the falls with a minute silhouette of Paddle-to-the-Sea as it tips over edge of the cascading Niagra waters, from which an arcing rainbow rises.

An installment of The World Museum, by Holling Clancy Holling and his wife Lucille, published May 16, 1937.  Courtesy of Wikipedia.

An installment of The World Museum, by Holling Clancy Holling and his wife Lucille, published May 16, 1937. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Paddle-to-the-Sea is but one of many works that Holling created, often with the assistance of his wife Lucille, to captivate the minds and stretch the imaginations of children. One interesting endeavor of the Hollings was a series of newspaper comics published in the late 1930s called The World Museum.  These comics featured a series of illustrations with detailed instructions for cutting them out and assembling their component parts into elaborate dioramas, requiring only “scissors, paste, and wrapping paper.”  Topics included the Grand Canyon, an undersea adventure, covered wagons, and a buffalo hunt.  The latter topic, though perhaps challenging our conservation hindsight, must be seen in the context of the times.  Given that The World Museum was being produced in the heart of the Great Depression, the series was truly visionary, making an elaborate educational tool available to nearly any child whose parents could afford a newspaper.  Among Holling’s other book-length natural history works for children are Minn of the Mississippi (1951), a Newbery Honor Book that follows the movement of a snapping turtle from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, and Pagoo (1957), which presents an intricate picture of tide pool life from the vantage point of a hermit crab.

The cover of Hollis Clancy Holling's 1951 children's book Minn of the Mississippi, which one the

The cover of Hollis Clancy Holling’s 1951 children’s book Minn of the Mississippi, which was later awarded the Newbery Medal.

It would be impressive enough if Holling Clancy Holling only juxtaposed rich and wondrous visual art with a pedagogically deft text that at times is truly magical, but he transcends even this with writing of great beauty. Of the Nipigon country in Paddle-to-the-Sea, Holling writes, “All this time the world was changing.  The air grew warmer, the birch twigs swelled with new buds.  A moose pawed the snow beside a log, uncovering green moss and arbutus like tiny stars.  And then, one morning, the gray clouds drifted from the sky.  The sun burst out warm and bright above the hills, and under its glare the snow blankets drooped on the fir trees.”  In Minn of the Mississippi, Holling renders the cell division leading to the formation of a snapping turtle embryo into a passage that is lyric and magical: “These cells were not piling themselves for no purpose.  They were adding new chains of cells within their secret ocean because the life in them held a memory.  It remembered patterns laid out when the world was young.  And, as though the Life had been given a definite, detailed task—“THESE CELLS SHALL BUILD TO A CERTAIN PATTERN WITHIN THIS SEA”—all cells were busily obeying this magic, mysterious order.”

Recently, justifiable attention has been paid to the reality that children—and many adults—grow more physically disconnected from the natural world with each passing year. The implications of this disconnection on the conservation movement are ominous, and the most commonly espoused approach of ecological triage is simply to bring children out into nature.  While this is critical, it is a simplistic solution with arguably little benefit in and of itself.  Many children lack a meaningful context with which to frame their experiences in nature.  It is not enough to simply deposit a child in a natural setting and hope for the best.  Works like those of Holling Clancy Holling can provide critical context for those experiences; they can likewise meaningfully frame those experiences after the fact.  They can also spur engagement.  The Internet is full of stories of individuals and school groups who have launched their own incarnations of Paddle-to-the-Sea.

In considering the power of children’s literature to foster conservation-mindedness, the works of Thornton W. Burgess, a staple of my childhood, likewise come to mind. During the early twentieth century, nature study as a national past-time hit its peak, and the national literature of that period reflects this. Much of that literature deserves revisiting, despite some challenges to our modern views, such as Holling’s appreciation for industry or Burgess’s heavy use of anthropomorphism.  There is, of course, modern children’s literature of great value as well; Janet Yolen’s Owl Moon, Natalia Romanova’s Once There Was a Tree, and Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born come to mind, as do a host of books by Jean Craighead George. And there are many others.  Still, in a time when we too must face the unavoidable reality that all natural systems, hydrographic and otherwise, are fragile, threatened, and fleeting, it is critical that we use all available tools, including the full canon of children’s literature, to engage children with and provide them meaningful context for the natural world.  Allowing a child to journey with a Nipigon boy’s Paddle-to-the-Sea “to the Great Salt Water” can accomplish these ends and a great deal more.

The Beginnings of  Wolf Recovery in Oregon

By Neva Knott

For Wolf Awareness Week, I’m going to post the series of papers I wrote in graduate school for my Conservation Biology course, all on wolves. To produce these papers, I read pretty much everything in the science literature about wolves, and studied the controversy in Oregon–my home at the time. These were written in 2010, but the scientific research is still the most current. What’s changed since is an increase in management and advocacy. That said, yesterday, via Pacific Wolf Coalition, I learned of a graduate project out of the University of Washington; researchers are investigating ungulate prey response to the presence of wolves. And, of course, there is the mesmerizing journey of the first wolf to disperse from an Oregon pack, OR-7.

Here is my second paper, actually the final in a series:

Unknown-1Image: wikimedia

Wolves began crossing into Oregon from Idaho in 1999, after US Fish and Wildlife re-introduction there. They are protected by both the federal Endangered Species Act and the Oregon’s own protection act. Wolves are listed as endangered until there are four breeding pairs in the state for three consecutive years. Currently, there are currently about 14 wolves in Oregon, comprising two packs. There is one breeding pair, in Wallowa County, eastern Oregon (ODFW).

Wolves were originally extripated from the Oregon landscape. A wolf bounty was established in the late 1800s, and the last wolf killed under that program was presented for bounty in 1946 (ODFW). The reason for removal of this predator was simple and straight-forward—it was a threat to human settlement and agriculture. As it stands now, the presence of wolves in Oregon is a significant issue in terms of conservation, culture and politics. The ESA mandated protection of this species calls into question the role of top predators, agricultural mores, the ranching lifestyle, and values held about how humans use nature. Wolves symbolize wilderness; humans fear wilderness, or revere it, or believe it is there for our purposes and needs alone. Human attitudes toward wolf recovery divide along these lines. Even so, wolf recovery here in Oregon is a study in the application of the principles of conservation biology.

Even though wolves do not present a problem of immediate danger to humans, wolf depredation of livestock is a serious concern for ranchers and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. There were no acts of depredation the first decade wolves were here, but calves have been killed by wolves the past two years (ODFW). Even so, the legal framework surrounding wolf management requires protection. In 2005 the ODFW adopted the Wolf Management Plan; this plan was recently up for review. The revision was adopted in October 2010.

Under the Wolf Management Plan, a three-phase program is in place to increase the wolf population so that the species can be delisted. The conservation population objective for eastern Oregon is four pairs present for three consecutive years. The management population objective is seven breeding pairs present for three consecutive years. Once this Phase II population is reaching, delisting will occur. Phase III management is intended for maintenance of wolf numbers so that relisting is not necessary (ODFW). In the recent review period of the WMP, it was projected that it us unlikely Phase I population numbers will be reached within the next 5-year evaluation period (ODFW). To monitor population growth and behavior, individual wolves are radio-collared and watched by camera surveillance. On occasion ODFW personnel capture and release wolves for inspection.

Much has changed on the Oregon landscape in the last century, leaving wolves with several risk factors with which to contend. Common themes in the literature are threat of persecution; human-caused habitat loss; habitat fragmentation and degradation; roads. Though wolves are considered habitat generalists, they are dependent on prey populations, most specifically of elk and deer. Even though there are environmental factors that affect wolves, it is woven consistently throughout the literature that human attitudes of tolerance are a major factor in wolf management and conservation.

Successful population increase is interdependent upon the management of depredation. The primary limiting factor has been, and possibly still is, direct persecution. Michelle Dennehy of ODFW explains that a rancher has the right to harass an invading wolf in many non-lethal ways, to include noise, such as firing a gun into the air. A rancher also has the option to work with ODFW experts to install fladry—strips of colorful cloth that confuse and deter wolves—and other to keep wolves from even coming close. Ranchers are also encouraged to dispose of carcasses in ways that will not attract wolves. In the event that wolves do kill a member of a herd, the rancher will be compensated and may be issued a permit, allowing him to shoot the wolf in the event he find one in the act of depredation. In incidents of depredation ODFW will kill the suspect pair of wolves, in hopes of sending the message to the other members of the pack that “this isn’t a good place to hunt,” as Dennehy explains. Should this form of control be necessary, the breeding pair will not be killed, nor will those collared for monitoring. The kill will not happen on public land or in the den area. Phase III of the WMP will allow for stronger control of wolves that kill livestock once they are delisted.

A theme has emerged in the current body of scientific literature about wolves that suggests wolves and humans can and should live on the same landscape. The current body of research on wolves began in the early 1990s. What is significant about the current body of research, and what sets it apart from what was done before, is that all of it is geared toward understanding wolf reintroduction or re-colonization. Reintroduction programs were conceptualized after the passage of the US Endangered Species Act, which gave protection to the gray wolf. Across the literature, it is clear that the first questions scientists asked were: What are the characteristics of this species? What will it take for this species to thrive? Where are the most habitable places? Along with this much information about the biology of the wolf itself was gathered. From the body of knowledge that now exists, one can now understand a wolf’s habits and needs so that management decisions can be shaped around the ESA policy of protection. As this current body of research has taken shape, Yellowstone National Park, the first site of reintroduction, has emerged as a model landscape. Now the scientific research question has become: What is happening within the ecosystem because wolves are here?

Wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Simultaneously, L. David Mech published “The Challenges and Opportunities of Recovering Wolf Populations” in the journal, Conservation Biology. Just before that, Steven H. Fitts, Edward E. Bangs, and James F. Gore published “The relationship of wolf recovery to habitat conservation and biodiversity in the northwestern United States” in Landscape and Urban Planning. Taken together, these papers clearly outline what was, and is, needed for wolves to survive on the contemporary American landscape. Both papers speak to the needs and functionality of habitat to shape their arguments in favor of wolves as a natural part of the landscape.

Mech’s paper looks at reproduction rate and dispersal to consider how wolf habitat needs can be met and managed within the context of human use of land. One suggestion is for zoning management, which allows for wolves to inhabit areas where there is natural prey while keeping them out of agricultural areas. For this idea, an example is given of wolves living in Minnesota and Montana in areas surrounded by farmland; no livestock depredation occurred. Mech also offers the example of a program sponsored by Defenders of Wildlife that pays ranchers to allow wolves to raise pups on ranchland. In correlation with his comments on habitat-sharing and how to make wolf-friendly habitat that discourages depredation, Mech is straightforward in his acknowledgement that wolf reintroduction will require some form of wolf control. He states that, “wolves will probably have to be controlled almost everywhere they are restored, [and] this translates to political pressure against wolf recovery.” When the issue of habitat is aligned with that of control, it becomes clear to see Mech’s point that wolves need access to prey within their range to survive without the threat of starvation, which can lead to livestock depredation.

Fritts, et. al., look at habitat structure and availability of prey, and they consider where appropriate land might be found, both public and private in ownership. As with Mech, they consider how to control wolves found in the wrong places. They cite a US Fish and Wildlife Service set of criteria that includes: year-round prey base; at least 7770 square km of contiguous designated wilderness, national park lands, and adjacent private land; a maximum of 10 percent private land ownership; absence of livestock grazing. Based on this set of criteria, these authors suggest, “the more negative the attitudes [of humans], the more wild space necessary…”. Fritts, et. al. realize that wolves are adaptive. These authors conclude simply that, given the availability of land, wolves need only two things to survive: ungulate prey and freedom from human persecution.

Now that wolves have been reintroduced, scientists understand that wolves create a trophic cascade in the ecosystem. Douglas W. Smith, Rolf D. Peterson, and Douglas B. Houston published “Yellowstone after Wolves” in BioScience. William J. Ripple and Robert L. Beschta published “Wolves and the Ecology of Fear: Can Predation Risk Structure Ecosystems?” also in BioScience. Smith, et. al., discuss how the presence of wolves has created balance in animal and plant populations. Ripple and Beschta set the YNP reintroduction into much broader contexts, looking at change over time and at a more complex web of interactions. Both papers clearly support wolf presence as a necessary function of the ecosystem. Both teams of scientists explain that elk and coyote populations increased to levels of concern about carrying capacity during wolf-free times. As well, shrub steppe vegetation and aspen growth lessened due to trampling by elk, and riparian functioning was altered. This, in turn, caused habitat loss for various mesocarnivores and birds. With wolves on the landscape, vegetation is regenerating and elk numbers are coming back in line. Ripple and Beschta conclude, “the extripation of the gray wolf—a keystone predator in this ecosystem—is most likely the overriding cause of the precipitous decline and cessation in the recruitment of [woody species].” In application of the YNP studies as relevant to Oregon the question becomes: What will be the same here, and what will differ?

Stakeholders were invited to comment on the WMP during the recent review period. In June of 2010, various meetings were held by ODFW with the following groups: Baker County Natural Resources Advisory Committee; Defenders of Wildlife; Hells Canyon Preservation Council; Nez Perce Tribe; Oregon Cattleman’s Association; Oregon Department of Agriculture; Oregon Farm Bureau; Oregon Hunters Association; Oregon Wild; Oregon Wool Growers Association; Umatilla Tribe; US Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services; US Fish and Wildlife Service; US Forest Service. There are three obvious factions in this mix—ranchers, conservationists, government agencies. These groups represent the overarching voices and concerns surrounding the issue of wolf recovery and management. As is plainly acknowledged in the ODFW summary of these meetings, most of the concerns of stakeholders focus on the balance of livestock production and wolf conservation.

Careful consideration of the issues that affect wolf fitness and drive management of the species has been conducted by the ODFW as it developed the revised WMP. Of primary concern is education of and collaboration with humans who live in close proximity of wolf habitat—ranchers and non-ranchers alike. As humans begin to understand the degree of threat posed by wolves and the ecosystem conditions that drive depredation, managers will be better able to serve wolves and in so doing minimize human-wolf conflicts. I believe the WMP outlines an appropriate strategy for managing this conflict, but I think more can be done. For example, Dennehy explains that ODFW personnel are not sure what caused the change in depredation; there was none for a decade, yet the last two years there have been several instances. Therefore, I would propose a study of the relationship between prey availability, habitat fragmentation and livestock predation. This study can draw on what is known about each of these elements separately. A hypothesis can then be formulated about how to avoid killing of livestock by maximizing habitat structure and prey availability in wilderness areas, on both public and private land.

L. David Mech and Rolf O. Peterson (2003), in Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, explain that wolves, though habitat generalists, adjust to a new prey source with lag time. These scientists believe that wolves circulate around their territories, gathering information and testing various types of prey. Lag time is created as wolves gather this information before switching prey. Mech and Peterson offer that this behavior explains seasonal variations in prey capture. As well, these scientists offer data on age of calves taken as prey; most are under one year in age. Most prey, regardless of species are less fit or in some way defective. Another group of scientists: Steven H. Fritts, Robert O. Stephenson, Robert D. Hayes, and Luigi Boitani, also writing for Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, explain the association of certain husbandry practice with depredation. These scientists found that untended livestock in remote pastures or heavily forested areas sustain the highest losses. As well, leaving newborn livestock in remote locations, poor surveillance of livestock, and the presence of carcasses increase the risk of depredation. This information, paired with data on wildlife prey sources within the range of the wolf pack, and a monitoring of possible nutrition stress can be used to minimize the need of livestock for food. By utilizing our knowledge of wolf biology and habitat needs, it is possible to create a harmonious existence between the two species that overleaps the main conflict of livestock depredation. As well, ranchers, as stakeholders, must be willing to make changes in husbandry practices to support this outcome.

Secondary to the objective of managing depredation, it is important that wolves be taken seriously as the indicators of ecosystem function and keystone species of top-down regulation that they are (Carroll, et. al.). Much can be learned, as Carroll suggests, about multi-species conservation strategies by looking at top predators. Here in Oregon, wolves can help frame the discussion about biodiversity. Moving forward, management of this species should include the goals of: habitat protection so that area available to wolves isn’t further degraded; a change in use of public lands for livestock grazing so as to make available a larger hunting range for wolves of their undomesticated prey; monitoring of the tropic cascade of landscape and ecosystem services created by the presence of wolves.

In terms of habitat protection, it is common knowledge that the US ESA provided protection of habitat where endangered species are concerned. Section 7 states that Federal agencies cannot conduct projects that destroy or modify habitat. Wolves occupy Federal public lands, State public lands and private lands. State agencies should follow the ESA mandates of habitat protection. On the ground this will affect where roads are built, where logging or other resource extraction happens, how areas are fenced. In terms of landscape and ecosystem, habitat protection will provide for less fragmentation and more connectivity, aspects that are key to such a far-ranging species as wolves. This conservation goal seems logically possible, and because of the ESA is probably already instituted; however, private landowners should be encouraged to understand the importance of connectivity and other aspects of habitat such as cover and area available for denning. The willingness of public landowners to participate in habitat protection is a constraint to consider in implementing this goal.

The way public lands are used for grazing is most likely regulated by rule-making and other policy setting mechanisms. I am not sure what re-configuration is possible at the local level. Even with policy procedures as a factor to contend with, it seems possible to use Mech’s zoning system mentioned above to create safer spaces on public lands for both wolves and livestock. There is enough science available to help managers understand and designate the types of habitat in which wolves thrive. That said, any changes to availability of public lands for grazing will be met with opposition from the ranching community. There is a long history in the public dialogue of Oregon around this issue. There is enough public support at this time for wolves, and that can be harnessed to create these changes.

Wolves have been back in Oregon for just over a decade. In that time, no research has been conducted to understand their effects on the landscape and ecosystem. I strongly suggest studies such as those conducted be implemented here. Quite simply, because wolves are top predators yet generalists, and so much of their modus operandi is determined by prey relations, it is important to understand how they function in the specific ecosystems where they are found. This knowledge will better inform management decisions and can serve to help mitigate the conflicts with ranchers. Once information is gathered about ecosystem services, the benefits should be communicated to stakeholders. Ranchers should be helped to see how the presence of wolves is beneficial. Also, this date will promote a human understanding of the biodiversity promoted by wolves, thereby furthering support for their presence. Constraints to this management goal are most likely financial, and this type of research takes time. Meanwhile, depredation continues to occur and the pressure to take offending wolves increases.

These objectives are in line with what textbook authors Martha J. Groom, Gary K. Meffe, and C. Ronald Carroll, Principles of Conservation Biology, state as an important research goal of conservation biology: the understanding of the interplay between processes and species as determinates of community structure and biodiversity. They also correlate with the Three Guiding Principles of Conservation Biology: evolution is the basic axiom that unites all of biology; the ecological world is dynamic and largely non-equilibrial; human presence must be included in conservation planning (Groom, et. al.).

The objective of Principle 1, as explained by Groom, et. al. is to ensure populations may continue to respond to environmental change in an adaptive manner. I am strongly suggesting habitat protection, which does not seem to require wolves to adapt. However, their range is broad, and they constantly have to adapt to changes within habitat within that range. It seems prudent to allow for adaption that is in line with intact habitat. Otherwise, wolves will be trying to adapt to landscapes that push the population past carrying capacity due to fragmentation and other degradation.

Principle 2 centers on the acknowledgement that ecosystems are open systems that experience fluxes of species, materials, and energy. Therefore, conservation acts should not be conducted in isolation (Groom, et. al). In my own thinking on wolf recovery and management, I tend toward ecosystem and landscape management. As is outlined above, it makes sense to look at this issue from multiple scientific perspectives that include the species itself, its habitat needs, and what it provides to the ecosystem in return.

In explanation of Principle 3, Groom, et. al state that, “[w]e must incorporate problems of modern culture into conservation, for they will have the largest influences on resource use.” As is clearly illustrated throughout this paper, human attitudes shape wolf management. These authors also suggest that a relationship between conservation and a reasonable standard of living is the only way to achieve conservation objectives that fall along the dividing line of the environment vs. economics. While the fate of wolves in Oregon seems to be promising on the biological front, their longevity here can only be sustained when they are able to coexist with ranchers.

Overall, I am optimistic about wolf recovery in Oregon. Citizens of this state have a long history of arguing over spotted owls vs. loggers, wolves vs. ranchers, salmon vs. hydro-electric power. The dialogue is always heated. Yet, we are always united by our love of the land, and this commonality paves the way for progressive solutions to these issues. So far, the ODFW Wolf Management Plan has been effective in sorting out the conflicts created by wolves here. There is enough science available, and research opportunities to make that science specific to Oregon’s needs that the future management of wolves will be effective.

Celebrating Wilderness: The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act

Milkyway, Yosemite Wilderness by KKeeler5

Milky Way reflected in a back country lake, Yosemite Wilderness. Photo by Kirk Keeler.

By Shauna Potocky

Across the dark of the night sky, a splattering of glistening stars—their bright light piercing the void. Even here, in the high reaches of the mountains and in the late hours of the night, the cold is no deterrent for those who cannot be held back from the pull of its beauty. In this perfect wilderness, with nothing to distract or diminish its awe, the stars can be seen reflecting in the high alpine lakes that sit perfectly positioned beneath the unobstructed night sky.

The hours pass until a blue dawn begins to break and the high mountain ridges, with their dark silhouettes, soften in the coming light. With the new day comes a cold wind. On the wind, a harmony of waking birds fills the basin with song and as the stiff breeze of daybreak sweeps along the surface of the alpine lakes—they ripple and shiver.

Ansel Adams wilderness  by KKeeler1

Ansel Adams Wilderness. Photo by Kirk Keeler.

Wilderness is a unique gift, bequeathed to each of us through legislation society can be proud of. It was through remarkable foresight that the idea of wilderness protection came to fruition. That through the protection of large tracts of land and wildlife refuges, collectively we are protecting habitats, water sources, and areas for recreation. In addition, we preserve a critical piece of our heritage, stunning landscapes for people to connect with along with the promise that these areas will be retained in their natural state for generations to come.

Even with the establishment of national parks and national forests, there was a recognition that protecting public lands and cultural sites might not be enough to secure protection for some of the nation’s most remarkable landscapes, specifically in their natural state and without development. Thus, a new designation of land preservation was sought, which could protect specific tracts of land as wilderness and establish a set rules for its management as well as ethics or behaviors, which would ensure along with its access, its protection.

Dunderberg Peak by KKeeler

Dunderberg Peak and fall colors. Photo by Kirk Keeler.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System. Through the establishment of this new system, protection was created for an array of federally managed lands including Bureau of Land Management holdings, national forests, national parks, and national wildlife refuges. Today, this system protects approximately 110 million acres across the United States.

Once an area achieves the status of federally designated wilderness, it is then afforded the highest level of protection. When we protect wilderness, we protect ecosystems and habitats that serve critical functions—from protecting biodiversity and water sources, to providing for wildlife and preserving spaces that serve as areas for recreation. Wilderness areas are critical for large landscape habitat protection and provide people with remarkable settings to find solitude in.

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Cascade and Sierra wildflowers. Photo by Kirk Keeler.

Often, wilderness areas will have special management plans and may require visitors to engage in proactive behaviors that minimize impacts to the landscape and its associated ecosystems and wildlife.

One of the most highly regarded sets of outdoor or wilderness travel ethics is known as Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. These guidelines are an excellent resource and focus on ways each of us can minimize our impact while recreating in a wilderness area or in our community open spaces. Empowered with the knowledge of LNT practices, we can feel confident while exploring remarkable landscapes and care for the area at the same time—a win-win for habitats and humans alike!

Perhaps one of the seemingly small-scale, yet greatest gifts of wilderness is the inspiration and restoration of spirit that it provides. Often people hike, camp or backpack in wilderness as a means of escaping the busy city and finding some quiet away from the demands of daily life. For others it may be the unique elements of the landscape that inspire. In the union of artist and wilderness as a muse, collectively, we have all benefited from its subsequent art, consider the poems of Gary Snyder, the stories of Jack Kerouac, the photography of Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell and Kirk Keeler, along with paintings from artists such as Chiura Obata or Penny Otwell to name only a few. There are countless others who continue to bring the wilderness to us in remarkable and inspiring ways.

Mt Ansel Adams by KKeeler

Mount Ansel Adams. Photo by Kirk Keeler.

Of course wilderness areas also face challenges. As resources succumb to increased pressure, more and more people will look at the resources within wilderness areas as potential solutions to supply issues. Consider fresh water or oil deposits for example; as the availability of fresh water or oil resources becomes increasingly in demand, resources such as these that are located within some protected areas may come under pressure. This is just one more reason that working together, resource issues need to be addressed at their source and managed in ways that can balance environmental and economic needs, while keeping these needs from reaching into our most cherished and protected landscapes.

Although it took the government to approve the Wilderness Act and establish the National Wilderness Preservation System, a small few worked tirelessly to move this legislation forward. Namely, Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, who is credited with this work and legacy. Today, honoring that legacy requires us to continue stewarding wilderness areas into the future.

Hoover Wilderness by KKeeler

Wildflowers and creek in the Hoover Wilderness. Photo by Kirk Keeler.

However wilderness touches our lives, we are fortunate enough to have a country that recognizes the value of such landscapes and provides it with the greatest possible protection. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this ideal and what it means for us today, we should also consider what is required of us to secure its future and how we will keep wilderness areas relevant to an increasingly urban population.

Wilderness is for everyone, not just a small few. At the core of its protection, is a philosophy that all people deserve landscapes preserved in their natural state with resources that are unfettered by human development. That vision, which was established on September 3, 1964 carries on today and leads to this important question, how will you celebrate the wilderness that was protected for you?

Consider this encouragement to get out there!

Photos by Kirk Keeler Photography

The Science of Wolves

By Neva Knott

For Wolf Awareness Week, I’m going to post the series of papers I wrote in graduate school for my Conservation Biology course, all on wolves. To produce these papers, I read pretty much everything in the science literature about wolves, and studied the controversy in Oregon–my home at the time. These were written in 2010, but the scientific research is still the most current. What’s changed since is an increase in advocacy. Here’s the first:

Introduction

The current body of research on wolves began in the early 1990s. What is significant about the current body of research, and what sets it apart from what was done before, is that all of it is geared toward understanding wolf reintroduction or re-colonization. Reintroduction programs were conceptualized after the passage of the US Endangered Species Act, which gave protection to the gray wolf. Across the literature, it is clear that the first questions scientists asked were: What are the characteristics of this species? What will it take for this species to thrive? Where are the most habitable places? Along with this much information about the biology of the wolf itself was gathered. From the body of knowledge that now exists, one can now understand a wolf’s habits and needs so that management decisions can be shaped around the ESA policy of protection. As this current body of research has taken shape, Yellowstone National Park, the first site of reintroduction, has emerged as model landscapes. Now the scientific research question has become: What is happening within the ecosystem because wolves are here? Unknown

Image: wiki commons

Literature Review

Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation is the wolf-ology compendium. Published in 2003 by University of Chicago Press and editied by L. David Mech and Luigi Biotani, this book covers everything know about wolves as a species to date: social ecology, reproductive, social, and intellectual behavior, carnivorousness, prey relations, population dynamics, physiology, genetics, evolution and taxonomy, interactions with non-prey, and human interaction. As well, Wolves gives scientific correction to some commonly held misbeliefs about wolves such as attacks made on humans, prey relationships, and livestock depredation. Each chapter addresses a specific topic and is authored by an expert for that field. As a collection, these essays provide an in-depth analysis of the risk factors for wolves: persecution, habitat structure and fragmentation, and prey availability. Anyone working with wolves or concerned about wolves should read this book.

Wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park (YNP) in 1995. Simultaneously, L. David Mech (2005) published “The Challenges and Opportunities of Recovering Wolf Populations” in the journal, Conservation Biology. Just before that, Steven H. Fitts, Edward E. Bangs, and James F. Gore (2004) published “The relationship of wolf recovery to habitat conservation and biodiversity in the northwestern United States” in Landscape and Urban Planning. Taken together, these papers clearly outline what is needed for wolves to survive on the contemporary American landscape. Both papers speak to the needs and functionality of habitat and shape their arguments in favor of wolves as a natural part of the landscape. Mech’s paper looks at reproduction rate and dispersal to consider how wolf habitat needs can be met and managed within the context of human use of land. He is straightforward in his acknowledgement that wolf reintroduction will require some form of wolf control. Fritts, et. al., look not only at habitat, but a availability of prey. As with Mech, they consider where appropriate land might be found, both public and private in ownership, and consider how to control wolves found in the wrong places. These authors conclude simply that, given the availability of land, wolves need only two things to survive: ungulate prey and freedom from human persecution.

Now that wolves have been reintroduced, scientists understand that wolves create a trophic cascade in the ecosystem. Douglas W. Smith, Rolf D. Peterson, and Douglas B. Houston (2003) published “Yellowstone after Wolves” in the journal, BioScience. William J. Ripple and Robert L. Beschta (2004) published “Wolves and the Ecology of Fear: Can Predation Risk Structure Ecosystems?” also in BioScience. Smith, et. al., discuss how the presence of wolves has created balance in animal and plant populations. Ripple and Beschta set the YNP reintroduction into much broader contexts, looking at change over time and at a more complex web of interactions. Both papers clearly support wolf presence as a necessary function of the ecosystem.

Overall, this body of literature gives strong information about the wolf and it’s function as a top predator. A theme has emerged that suggests wolves and humans can and should live on the same landscape.

Knowledge Gaps

Even though the existing literature is rich, there are knowledge gaps. Some of these are identified for the reader in Wolves (2003): dispersal and immigration; effects of prey types and multiple prey; multiple breeding females; role of disease; wolf-human relationships; population assessment; effects on low-density prey; pup survival. Smith, et. al. (2003) in “Yellowstone after Wolves” acknowledge that there is more to know about vegetation further down the trophic cascade. Ripple and Busheta (2004) suggest that a better understanding of elk adaptive responses to wolf presence is needed.

In terms of wolves in my bioregion, there is a knowledge gap in application of the YNP studies as relevant to Oregon. What will be the same here, and what will differ? One clear area of difference is habitat fragmentation, as is addressed in the Oregon Wolf Management Plan. The state’s wilderness is much more parced out and has more roads than does a national park.

Proposed Study

In Oregon, not only are landscape configurations different than in YNP, wolves have taken up residence in an area that is primarily used for ranching. This is another factor that is different than the protection offered in a national park. Therefore, I would propose a study of the relationship between prey availability, habitat fragmentation and livestock predation. This study can draw on what is known about each of these elements separately. A hypothesis can then be formulated about how to avoid killing of livestock by maximizing habitat structure and prey availability.

Conclusion Wolves have not been re-introduced into Oregon, but are dispersing here. All of the literature points to human attitudes as a significant factor in the success of wolves anywhere in America. By utilizing our knowledge of wolf biology and habitat needs, it is possible to create a harmonious existence between the two species that overleaps the main conflict of livestock depredation. As proven in YNP, Oregon’s ecosystem will benefit greatly from these top predators.

Literature Cited

Fritts, Steven H., et. al. 1994. The relationship of wolf recovery to habitat conservation and biodiversity in the northwestern United States.  Landscape and Urban Planning.

Mech, L. David. 1995The Challenge and Opportunity of Recovering Wolf Populations. 1995. Conservation Biology.

Mech, L. David and Biotani, Luigi, eds. Wolves–Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. 2003. University of Chicago Press.

Ripple, William J., and Beschta, Robert L. 2004. Wolves and the Ecology of Fear: Can Predation Risk Structure Ecosystems?  BioScience. Smith, Douglas, et. al. 2003. Yellowstone after Wolves. 2003. BioScience .

Along My Goat Path to My Bioregion

Text and Photographs by Neva Knott

As I make lunch, pondering the blog post I need to write today, a crazy rain begins. Moments ago it was sunny. I had the slider to the back yard open for the dogs, and all of the windows open to let in the clean fall air. Now, rain comes down in a fury. Large drops plash and make wide rings that jump back up off surfaces. Water flows over my gutters. I rush to shut the slider, only to find a stand of water on the floor. I mop it, and then move around the house, shutting windows and wiping floors–rainwater has come in through each opening. As I throw the wet towels into the washing machine, I remember reading something in my Facebook newsfeed about a typhoon that will sit off the west coast this weekend. I conduct a quick google search, and I find Typhoon Vongfong, headed for Japan, the biggest storm to hit the planet this year. One report suggests the west coast will get some blowback from Vongfong. I concur.

An hour later, as I sit down to write this post, the third wave of the storm hits. I had planned to write about bioregionalism, that intense commitment to living where one lives, but Vongfong has reminded me of the interconnectedness of all things, and the importance of global awareness. When I read of storms like this one, I am reminded that we’re all facing environmental disaster and that we’re all in it together. We–and by this I mean all humans on this planet–have got to find a way to change how we live in relationship to the natural world. Super-storms are going to blow and humans are mere mortals in the face of them. But the poisoning of the ocean from nuclear waste leakage from reactors at Fukushima or the desecration of the ocean via an oil spill like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are within human control.

So, even though global awareness is important because the interconnectedness of the planet’s life-sustaining systems is undeniable, bioregionalism is a fail safe in the face of today’s environmental threats.

Peter Berg, a Haight-Ashbury activist, is credited with coining the term “bioregionalism.” The website for his foundation, Planet Drum, gives this definition:

“A bioregion is defined in terms of the unique overall pattern of natural characteristics that are found in a specific place. The main features are generally found throughout a continuous geographic terrain and include a particular climate, local aspects of seasons, landforms, watersheds, soils, and native plants and animals. People are also counted as an integral aspect of a place’s life, as can be seen in the ecologically adaptive cultures of early inhabitants, and in the activities of present day…attempt to harmonize in a sustainable way with the place where they live.”

In my last post, I mentioned wanting to get to better know where I live, Olympia, Washington. I was born here. Then we moved overseas. We returned when I was in the eighth grade. I graduated high school here, spent about a year after working at a pizza joint, and then moved to Portland, Oregon, just two hours south. I lived in Portland for most of the next 32 years (except for a short stint back in Oly to finish my undergrad degree at The Evergreen State College).

But where to begin here? I know I live in the Cascadia Bioregion and in the Puget Trough ecoregion. Yet, as I sat down to write, my bioregion seemed too big to break down into a blog post. I looked through my graduate school texts and papers. I traced my steps to knowing Oregon, and I realized so much of my Oregon study was a continuation of the experiential knowledge I had of those landscapes, gathered over 30 years of road trips, hikes, camping, and beach walks. In that realization, I found my plot for this writing.

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Image: wiki commons

I decided to follow my goat path. My mom coined the term “goat path,” that route each of us travels daily from home to work, barn to fodder…

***

It’s Saturday. I begin the day by walking the dogs in the middle school sports field below my house. A buffer of mature Douglas fir, Big Leaf Maple, and Alder–all indigenous species–separate the row of homes from the track, baseball diamonds, and soccer pitches. As the dogs go on, sniffing for scents from deer and coyote, I look back at the trees and ponder subdivision development then and now. My whole neighborhood was build with tall trees left standing, whereas today’s developers clear-cut, leaving nothing but dust on the plat before they begin to build. Crows, jays, robins and bats live in my trees and killdeer find habitat in their understory. There’s a slight downslope between two parts of the field. In the rain it fills enough that Mallard ducks and Canadian Geese stop off to rest and swim.

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After the dog walk, I make a cup of tea, don my yoga clothes, and head down town to The Yoga Loft. En route, I stop at the co-op. I’ve had a membership there since college, since 1987. I grab a nut and seed cookie, chat with the volunteer cashier, pay and keep on. As I leave the co-op, which is just a mile from my house, on the corner in a residential neighborhood (but nonetheless a hub), I decide to take the back route down the hill.

I like the view–a part of the Port where lumber awaits shipment. Though deforestation is a significant environmental concern, logging is part of the cultural and economic reality here and, thankfully, the ways of the industry are changing in favor of sustainability, albeit to varying degrees.

Then it’s across the bridge over the confluence of Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet, both of which form the mouth of the Deschutes River as it flows into Puget Sound.

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Image: DERT

The salmon run just passed through these waters a couple of weeks ago on its way up the Deschutes to spawn. Each year, at least now, someone puts letters on the bridge rail, S-E-E T-H-E S-A-L-M-O-N H-E-R-E, an attempt at community environmental education, I guess. When I was in college, it was legal to fish on the Sound side of the bridge when the salmon were running, but not on the lake side. That’s how we ate one winter; each day, my housemates and I stood on the bridge and fished until we had the day’s limit.

I park along Water Street, and walk down to the lake. Mallard ducks fly over the water. Runners run, walkers walk–some with coffee. Dogs sniff. The wind blows. On occasion, I’ve seen a Blue Heron fishing off the shore. And, unfortunately, trash floats long the surface of the water.

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Of current debate is the proposal to remove the dam that makes Capitol Lake a lake rather than the estuary for the Deschutes as it enters Budd Inlet. It’s a man-made lake designed to be the reflection pool for the state capitol building that sits on the hill above it. The lake is currently closed to swimming and boating because of several ecological problems such as high levels of river sediment, fecal coliform bacteria, infestation by Eurasian milfoil the New Zealand Mudsnail. I swam in this lake as a child.

The Yoga Loft is in the old American Legion building. I don’t always know how yoga fits within my sustainable perspective, but today I am reminded. As class begins and the teacher reminds everyone not to go to the place of pain, she references the yogic principle ahimsa, do no harm. She actually says, “Usually we think of doing no harm to others, animals, and the environment…” and that’s when I connect.

After class, I pause before getting in the car, looking around my immediate surrounds. Much of the time I find Olympia to be boring. I’m used to the bright city lights, literally and metaphorically, and to the easily accessible Oregon natural landscape. As I pause this morning, I realize that this landscape–Olympia–is where I learned about the natural world, where I learned, from my dad, about living in accordance with nature’s rhythms and the planet’s natural resources. I vow to get to know this place better, in the here and now.

I take the main road back up the hill. Westside Central Park sits at main intersection before I turn right toward home. This corner plot stood abandoned and derelict for years. Last spring, someone bought it and donated it to the community. It now blooms and is slowly becoming a little respite in the flow of goat paths.

So back to this idea of the bioregion. It’s a place that shares biological features. Those features support life for all of its inhabitants. The inhabitants, in turn, promote the health of the bioregion by caring for it and by living within it. In a simple sense, my goat path carries me through my bioregion: through the trees left standing when my house was built, to the corner store where most of the food comes from local farms and all of it is made as sustainably as possible, past the waterways that carry the salmon that feed all the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. All points on my goat path intersect with like-minded, friendly people doing their parts to live more lightly on the earth.

***

When I first read this passage from Brian Doyle’s novel, Mink River, I thought, that’s my bioregion, spelled out:

“Neawanaka has been a settlement of one size or another for perhaps five thousand years. Human beings lived here for all the normal reason you can name: it is well watered, with small but persistent creeks to the north and south, a small but serious river running right smack through town, and an Ocean. There are trout in the creeks, salmon and steelhead run up the river and creeks seasonally, and perch and halibut and cod and such swim not too far offshore; there are so many fish of so many kinds in and around the town that for perhaps five thousand years the name of the town was So Many Fish in the native tongue spoken here. There are deer and elk in the spruce and cedar forests. It hardly ever snows in winter and hardly ever bakes in summer. It does get an unbelievable amount of rain…and the rain starts in November and doesn’t really end, as a continuous moist narrative, until July, but then those next four months are crisp and sunny and extraordinary times, when every living creature, from the pale cloudberry close to the eagles the size of tents floating overhead, is grinning and exuberant.”

After reading this passage, I thought, no need for anything from elsewhere–this place can support itself. This is the point of bioregionalism–it precludes reliance on goods and services from outside. Bioregionalism is steeped in regional relationships that support sustainable use of natural resources for  all the needs of all the region’s inhabitants. And this is why I call bioregionalism a fail safe for the resource-depleted times to come.

***

They say, when the worst happens, that climate refugees will come here to the Pacific Northwest, largely because we’ll still have water. Though the sky has turned back to crayon blue in the time I’ve been writing and the clouds are once again puffy and white, today’s storm is a reminder that climate change is upon us, and that nope, we’ll not run out of water in these parts any time soon.

And as the world continues to change, here in Olympia, we’ll continue to adapt. We’ll better understand that man-made lakes might make pretty mirrors for man-made buildings, but that clean water and viable habitat is more important. And I’ll continue to hope that all the climate refugees will not come here. Instead, I hope everyone begins to understand how to live bioregionally–to find find their own versions of a healthy salmon run and their own versions of an inhabitable, clean-water estuary, so that they can feed themselves from the bounty of the places they live.

The Last Straw

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Photo courtesy of the Wiki Commons.

By Christine Harris

Two years ago the National Park Service visitor center where I work held a public screening of the documentary film Bag It! followed by a panel discussion. Bag It! tells the story of Jeb Berrier whose decision to stop using single-use plastic bags leads him to delve into the complicated world of recycling and the impacts that plastics have on our oceans and our health. The panel discussion was to focus on recycling and plastics in our oceans.

As the panel members took their seats in front of the audience after the showing I was surprised to see a ten-year-old boy among them. The boy was Milo Cress founder of the Be Straw Free campaign. At first I thought, why focus on straws? Don’t we have bigger issues to face? Yet after hearing more from Milo about his campaign I better understood how his message fits into the much larger issues of disposable plastics and plastics in our oceans.

Straws are one of the top ten marine debris items. In 2013 COASTSWEEP, an annual volunteer-based cleanup of Massachusetts’ beaches, found straws and drink stirrers to be the fifth most common type of trash collected with over 5,100 collected during the event.

Photo courtesy of the USFWS.

An albatross with a stomach full of plastic debris. Photo courtesy of the USFWS.

In the United States 500 million disposable straws are used each day. Though most straws are made of recyclable plastics like plastic #2 or #5, plastic drinking straws present a problem for single stream recycling and most communities will not recycle them. Straws can jam up the large sorting machines used at single stream recycling facilities.

Milo Cress’ Be Straw Free campaign, which he started when he was nine years old, invites people to take the pledge to go straw free by asking for no straw when at restaurants or when getting drinks to go and by not purchasing them for use at home. For those who like to use straws he suggests buying a reusable straw. His campaign also encourages restaurants to adopt an Offer First policy. Instead of automatically giving each patron a straw restaurant employees first ask customers if they want one.

Milo, who hails from Burlington, Vermont, has brought his movement all over the country. In his hometown Mayor Bob Kiss issued a proclamation declaring the tenets of the “Be Straw Free” as best practices for the city. In July of 2013, after meeting Milo, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper declared a statewide “Straw Free Day.” On Earth Day in 2013 Xanterra Resorts, a concessionaire responsible for running lodges and restaurants in many national parks including Yellowstone, Zion, and the Grand Canyon, partnered with Milo to bring the “Be Straw Free” campaign to their facilities.

Grand Canyon Lodge. Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Grand Canyon Lodge. Managed by Xanterra Resorts. Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Milo has also visited countless schools in the United States, Australia and Europe where he encourages schools to stop using plastic straws and raises awareness about larger issues like single use disposable plastics and plastics in our oceans. Not bad for a kid who’s twelve years old.