The Rachel Carson Reserve

Text and photographs by Maymie Higgins.

Featured Image: Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata). The Latin name Ocypode means “swift-footed.” Ghost crabs actually spend the majority of their time out of water and use fine hairs on the base of their legs to wick up water from sand to wet their gills.

This past summer I visited a part of the North Carolina coast I had yet to explore in spite of being a lifelong resident of the state. My annual week long vacation was spent on Emerald Isle which is one of three communities on one of the southern Outer Banks islands and includes Pine Knolls Shore and Atlantic Beach. There are many historic and educational sites within a brief drive including one of the three North Carolina Aquariums, Fort Macon, the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, NC and my most sought after site, The Rachel Carson Reserve.

Visiting_Rachel_Carson_9Jul09

Map courtesy of NC Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve as part of a brochure printed with grant funds provided by NOAA.

The Rachel Carson Reserve is located between the mouths of the Newport and North Rivers and directly across Taylor’s Creek from Beaufort. The main part of the site, just south of Beaufort, is a complex of islands which includes Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, Horse Island and Middle Marsh. In 1977, Beaufort residents, civic organizations and environmental groups came together and prevented the development of a resort on the reserve. The N.C. Chapter of The Nature Conservancy purchased 474 acres of Carrot Island that year. The State of North Carolina acquired Town Marsh, Carrot Island, Horse Island and Bird Shoal in 1985, with the addition of Middle Marshes in 1989. The entire reserve is 2,315 acres.

Beaufort

A view of Beaufort through the cordgrass on the reserve, replete with periwinkle, a small marine gastropod (snail) that grazes on algae and detritus on the surface of plants and on the ground. They are food for many species of crabs and terrapins.

The reserve is one of 10 sites that make up the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Rachel Carson Reserve is available as a natural outdoor laboratory where scientists, students and the general public can learn about coastal processes, functions and influences that shape and sustain the coastal area. This is in keeping with the reserve’s namesake, who did research at the site in the 1940s.

Periwinkle

Closer shot of periwinkle. I am fascinated by the multiple trophic levels that exist just among the varying heights of the cord grass. Estuarine ecosystems are quite rich.

Twice-daily, tides mix fresh and salt water in the reserve and create a very favorable estuarine environment for juvenile fish and invertebrates. The reserve is rich with coastal ecosystems including tidal flats, salt marshes, ocean beach, soft bottom, shell bottom, dredge spoil areas, sand dunes, shrub thicket, submerged aquatic vegetation, and maritime forest.

Devils Walking Stick

Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa), a native shrub tree that produces berries that can be consumed by many birds and mammals but are toxic to humans.

The reserve is located within the Atlantic Migratory Flyway and more than 200 species of birds, including rare species, have been observed there. The site is an important feeding area for Wilson’s plovers in the summer and piping plovers in the winter. The shrub thicket of Middle Marsh supports an egret and heron rookery. Wildlife on the island includes river otter, gray fox, marsh rabbit, raccoon, and a herd of feral horses. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, diamondback terrapins, sea turtles, and many species of fish and invertebrates are found in the estuarine waters surrounding the site.

Indian Blanket

Beautiful Indian Blankets (Gaillardia pulchella) were all over the reserve.

I accessed the reserve by taking a guided hike with the N.C. Maritime Museum, which included a boat to the trailhead and a pick up later. The hike was led by Benjamin Wunderly, Associate Museum Curator who provided lots of good information and species identification as we moved through the different ecosystems.

Horses

The feral horse herd, easily 500 yards or more away during the time of my hike. The horses travel to the parts of the reserve not usually accessed by humans during the hours that humans are likely to visit…because horses are smart like that.

Many visitors to the reserve are curious about the approximately 30 feral horses living on the island. No one knows exactly how they came to be there and there are many theories. Horses may have been on the islands as early as the mid-eighteenth century when Carrot Island was noted on a 1733 map of Beaufort. Horse Island was noted on an 1851 Sketch of Beaufort Harbor, administered under the US Coast Survey Office, most likely named as such because there were horses there.

The feral horses became the property of North Carolina when the land was purchased in the 1980s. The main food supply for these feral horses is Smooth Cordgrass – Spartina alternaflora and the primary source of fresh water is from holes the horses dig. The Beaufort reserve’s staff oversees the horse management. Individual horses are identified, photographed and maintained. Each horse is tracked for births, general health, social habits and eventually death. Beyond the birth control program, the horse population is treated as a wild herd.

Peas

Mr. Wunderly pointing out Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum), which the horses will eat in addition to the cord grass.

While chatting with Mr. Wunderly about the horses, I expressed my affinity for such mysteries. It does this soul good to know that in my home state there is a reserve where I can visit and spend an unlimited time pondering how something domestic came to be wild. No matter how long I ponder, I will never know the answer but the wild will remain so, thanks to the good efforts of good folks who came together to protect and preserve the Rachel Carson Reserve.

The Story of Birds Brought to Life in a Brushstroke

Text by Shauna Potocky. Photographs courtesy of Jane Kim.

Artist Jane Kim’s hand crafted installation, “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Diversity and Evolution of Birds,” fills the largest wall of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Visitor Center in Ithaca, New York. Also known as The Wall of Birds, it is a striking art and education exhibit, unprecedented in its scope and absolutely stunning to see and explore.

The extraordinary hand painted piece blends the realism of scientific illustration with the dramatic character of the birds it represents. Commissioned by Cornell Lab as a celebration of its centennial, the project features 270 species of birds. Each bird is painted to scale and the artwork brings 243 families as well as 27 ancestors and five recently extinct relatives, into focus. The work connects the evolution and diversity of birds while demonstrating their distribution world-wide.

The project took two and half years to complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

The project took two and half years to complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting. 

This month, Jane Kim, creator of Ink Dwell, an art studio inspiring people to love and protect the natural world one work of art at a time, took a moment from her schedule to share some of the key highlights of the Cornell project—from its vision, content, and life size scale to Cornell Lab’s dedication and commitment to handcrafted artwork.

Through the commissioning of this one-of-a-kind project, Cornell demonstrated how much it values scientific illustration, the of blending art, science and engagement as a meaningful tool for education. In total, the project scope took two and half years to develop and complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting.

A close up view of the Great Hornbill. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

The Great Hornbill. 

Shauna Potocky:  This project is truly inspiring. What do you hope the project work conveys?

Jane Kim: The project is meant to convey the awe of how many birds there are in the world; it also demonstrates how remarkable it is that birds have diversified to such an extraordinary extent. To see two hundred families is remarkable, and they are life size, placed on a world map with relative scale, and viewable in one location.

SP: How can people see and experience the work?

JK: One of the best ways to see it is in person. Since it is featured inside the Cornell Lab Visitor Center, it can be viewed during normal visitor hours. In addition, Cornell is currently building a digital interactive that can be used to experience the wall and will be released in February 2016.  The interactive includes high-resolution images of every inch of the wall! This will allow viewers to zoom in to see the images—you will be able to see every brush stroke. It will allow viewers to select a bird, learn about it, and hear its call. One of the great features is that Cornell has the largest collection of sounds in the world.

SP: What was one of the most exciting aspects of the project?

JK: It is unprecedented—completing a hand painted mural of all the birds–it was such a large project and took so much time. Researching, learning the subjects, developing the work and then painting it. Cornell truly demonstrated that they value hand crafted murals and value the time it would take to complete such a piece. From start to finish it took two and half years and required 16 months of on site painting. Now the piece is bringing art and education to people and engaging them.

SP: What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

JK: The balance of art and science because there was a high demand for scientific accuracy. It was working with a high bar for accuracy and creating a portrait that captured the spirit of the bird. In addition, painting it so it can be viewed from all distances and still be viewed beautifully. The work needed to read beautifully in the interactive and from far away.

Jane Kim at work on the Wall of Birds, a project celebrating Cornell Labs centennial. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Jane Kim at work on the Wall of Birds, a project celebrating Cornell Labs centennial. 

SP: Were there any species of birds that captured you, that perhaps you had not known previously?

JK: I didn’t know each bird, so every bird was a surprise. I enjoyed discovering fun facts like the Saddle-bill Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) with the only difference between male and female being the color of the eye. So I made it a female, with a yellow iris. I tried to depict females as much as I could, since males are often showier and represented.

The North Island Giant Moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae) female is also depicted because they are the bigger sex. There was a time when it was thought that they were two species—one being a subspecies because of the size differences. Testing showed that the birds were the same, males were smaller, females were larger.

Fun behaviors are also represented, such as the Long-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis) with its fun little mating dance. There are also Gouldian Finches (Erythrura gouldiae), a set of three because they have three different head colors, yellow, black and red, but they are the same species.

SP: How do you hope this work touches people?

JK: I hope it is inspiring to see, and I hope it is statement that demonstrates how Cornell values hand painted creations that can be inspiring and useful tools for education. I hope it also inspires people to ask a lot of questions and sparks a new generation of scientific illustrators—we need that. I hope it allows others to think big, take the time and make the effort.

Taking a step back to get a view of the scope and scale of the project. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Taking a step back to get a view of the scope and scale of the project. 

In many ways “From So Simple A Beginning” is a remarkable gift—it celebrates 100 years of Cornell Lab’s work and endeavors for birds, while providing an unparalleled learning opportunity through quality artwork that also celebrates the profound and quiet power of scientific illustration—a field that is rarely discussed yet touches so many of our lives.

With the recent completion of “From So Simple a Beginning,” Jane Kim already has new projects in the works, including the next addition to the Migrating Mural—so stay tuned as we wait to see what her next projects and remarkable artwork have to teach us.

After the Wildfire

Flowers rise and oaks sprout in the fire scar. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Flowers rise and oaks begin to sprout in a fresh fire scar. 

Text and photographs by Shauna Potocky.

After the wildfire, you face the fire scar and all the standing dead trees turned to charred stoic poles whose fate now will be decided by the winter or the wind. If you’re curious, you find yourself walking the fire line, listening to the bugs eating into the wood, spotting the handful of wildlife that thrive here, specializing in preparing the burned landscape for its next phase. You hike through two worlds with no mirror or mysticism between them—they are separated by pink retardant or a hand-cut fire line—a line in the sand, if you will.

On one side, sound comes under foot as you crush leaves and dried pine needles, where your eyes can marvel at the bright green tones of foliage and the tall spires that point to the sun, yet carpet the forest with shade.

In the fire scar, your footsteps have no sound as the barren black earth turned soft and to ash gives to your weight. Sometimes you posthole, your foot stepping right through the surface, as the roots that once held the ground in place have left nothing but vacant tubes of air below ground and your presence collapses the labyrinth. There is no shade between the skyward poles, but there are water scars from the helicopter drops and pink splotches of retardant that have yet to fade away, and there are lupine, black oaks, and wild roses already taking the forest back for themselves. The seed bank and roots that survive will sprout, racing to compete for all that sun and any moisture that will come.

The beginning of the fire as seen from the authors house. Photo by Shauna Potocky

The beginning of the fire that changed the neighborhood dynamics, as seen from the author’s home. 

After one fire you watch for the next. It is unnerving. These summers, I once heard them described as “white knuckle,” are relentless. And then there are all the opportunities for error, human actions that can spark a wildfire, sending people and animals into panic. The undoused campfire, a dragging trailer chain that throws a spark, the car that pulls over into the dry grass, or the dreaded cigarette launched without a thought into the roadside brush—so many things that, in the past had space for forgiving, today leaves no room for error.

Then there is this—you notice all of your new neighbors. The types who don’t knock on your door, or have a specific address, but come to your yard looking for water or in search of some food. Just as people lose their homes in fires, wildlife lose their habitat. They lose their den trees, or foxholes, their water sources, or the prosperous stands of Manzanita or the downed trees filled with grubs. So they come looking for what they need to make a living, and that place might just be the same place you call home.

I love all my new neighbors, the coyotes that are now coming into their winter coats, Great Horned and Western Screech owls that fill the night with breathy talk, expanded herds of Mule deer and the most elusive, a large Black bear who leaves only paw prints and scat.

The new neighbor, an American Black bear, as captured on a wildlife camera. Photo by Shauna Potocky

A new neighbor, an American Black bear, as captured on a wildlife camera. 

Each night since the fire I can hear their footsteps crushing the fallen leaves and shuffling through the straw-dry grass. I can hear their deep inhales and sensing breaths as they determine where I am. I hear their snorts and their young peeping. At day break there is evidence everywhere—large bear scats filled with crushed Manzanita berries, clawed wood on the downed tree, deer pellets dotting the yard in patches, hedge high trimming to all of my edible plants, and flattened grass that reveals where the deer have bedded down for a rest in the lengthening night.

We respect each other, keep our distance, simply watch. I don’t leave out any food and make sure my car and garbage are buttoned up tight. It is too easy for wildlife to lose their foraging habits if they learn they can obtain food from housing areas; pet food, birdfeeders, trash, all of this can become a lure, which changes normal behaviors and can ultimately put wildlife at risk for conflict. It is a critical time, keeping this wildlife wild while they hover on the edge of the neighborhood and the forest.

Young deer following their mother on a well traveled route through the woods. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Young deer following their mother on a well traveled route through the woods. 

Daily migrations of Mule deer are commonplace but the presence of a large black bear fills me with immense joy. There hasn’t been evidence of a bear here in nearly five years. Honestly, I am honored that the landscape of my property, which remains connected to the forest via an open fence, that has been tended exhaustively to clear for fire yet held space for native plants to thrive, can sustain large mammals found in the Sierra Nevada.

Manzanita berries are an important food source for many animals in the Sierra Nevada. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Manzanita berries are an important food source for many animals in the Sierra Nevada. 

Now, I watch carefully to see how the Manzanita berry crop is doing and wonder how long the bear and I will both call this place home. It is welcome to stay as long as it likes and for certain, as long as it needs, though I hope things will return to a new state of normal, with the bear fattened in Fall in order to den for Winter and a return of rain and snow to California, in order to ease the drought and end this marathon fire season.

Orangutans and the Fires in Indonesia–an Environmental Tipping Point

By Neva Knott

Orangutans hold a special place in my heart. My father, Norman P. Knott, was a zoologist. In the early 1970s he worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). We lived in Thailand and often dad would take the family with him to other Asian countries he visited for work. It was on one of these trips I fell in love with the orange Great Ape, as did my little sister. We were at a zoo and the larger male orangutan in captivity there was smoking a cigarette, an indelible image etched into my 11-year-old mind.

He was just he first of many orangutans we’d see while living and traveling in Asia.

In a later conversation between my dad and my older sister–she had asked him what he felt most proud of in his life–he said, “Creating protected habitat for orangutans.” My sister was taken aback, as the family folklore goes; she felt slighted that dad put the orangutan above his four daughters in his pride of accomplishment. When she shared this anecdote with me she said, “I said, but you have children.” My little sister and I somehow approve of dad’s heartfelt championship of the funny-looking orange and fuzzy animals we loved so much in our childhood. Truth be told, both of us still do hold them dear.

Source: wiki commons.

I’ve been following the news about the fires in Indonesia since it broke a few weeks ago. After the first few reports, focused on the fires themselves–locations, cause, containment–I began to see pieces about trapped and threatened orangutans. As I planned my next post for The Ecotone Exchange, I decided to write about them, thinking “this is another opportunity to show the power of consumerism and to talk about how we shop matters” (because the fires are a direct result of slash and burn clearing for palm oil plantations). Many of the reports I’d read explained rescue missions to get orangutans out of burning forests and to safety, another positive, I naively thought. Until last night.

My father’s legacy is going up in smoke.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

I began my research into the depth of the orangutans’s situation–I always like to go beyond the click-bait information–with a google search of UN-FAO orangutan habitat. I crossed imaginary fingers that dad’s name would pop up, but his work was so long ago, I didn’t expect to see Norman P. Knott in my search results. I did find the recent (2011) report published by the United Nations Environment Programme, “Orangutans and the Economics of Sustainable Forest Management in Sumatra.” The photographs in the report are telling–I hope you click on the link and take them in. Information in these types of reports is always rich fodder, and not the type of information the general public reads, but I’m sure we’d all act and react differently if we had these types details easily in front of us. In fact, sometimes I think my work as a blogger is really that of extraction. The information, based on research, in this report frames the background of the orangutan’s plight in Indonesia:

First and of foremost importance, “With current trends in forest loss, the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) may well be the first Great Ape to go extinct in the wild.” In 1900, the population was 85,000. Now, it’s 6,600. This is a decrease of 92 per cent and has landed the species on the Red List. Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are also rapidly declining in number, down from 54,000, and listed as endangered. Information for the UNEP report was gathered in the Leuser Ecosystem, Aceh, and North Sumatra–areas currently burning.

Orangutans are extremely vulnerable to extinction due to a combination of factors. They have an exceptionally slow reproductive rate–Sumatran orangutan females give birth to just one infant at a time, only every eight or nine years. Indeed, the loss of as little as 1 per cent of females each year can place a population on an irreversible trajectory to extinction; they require vast areas of contiguous rainforest to live in; they are very much restricted to lowland forest areas.

Orangutans are most threatened by fragmented habitat–an issue similar to the one I wrote about last week in my post about Wildlife Bridges. The orangutan’s habitat fragmentation is due to forest loss which results from a combination of road development, expansion of large- scale agriculture, logging concessions, mining and small-scale encroachment. To illustrate the magnitude of forest loss–between 1985 and 2007, 49 per cent of all forests on the island were destroyed. Road development is tied to economic development, but the problem for the ecosystem in general and orangutans specifically is that roads are not planned to maintain habitat. The authors of the report state, “These threats can be directly attributed to in- adequate cross-sectoral land use planning, reflecting needs for short-term economic growth, and a lack of environmental law enforcement.”

Of these, the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in recent years probably represents the greatest single agricultural threat to orangutan survival in the region. The establishment of many of these plantations has resulted in significant losses in orangutan habitat, since they have been created by converting forests instead of making use of already deforested areas, such as existing agricultural or low current use value land. Of note, one of the drivers of this rapid expansion that exists outside of the consumer market is population increase in Indonesia. In this report, the UNEP explains that 50 per cent of Indonesians rely on agriculture for income, and theirs is a population growing rapidly, so the actual number of persons represented by that percentage is much greater than it was even a few years ago–more people to support washes out as more cleared land.

As I read on into the report, I gained a little hope. I was bolstered by the fact that orangutans have been protected since 1931. Most of their habitat is in protected areas on Sumatra the rest of Indonesia. New regulations–as of the publication of the report–are in effect to make the spatial planning process one that is habitat-friendly. The government seems to want to work for orangutans, “The Government of Indonesia has ratified and integrated into national law many international environmental treaties and conventions (e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade in En- dangered Species, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention). Most of these support orangutan conservation at the national and international level. In 2007, the Indonesian government also released its own Indonesian National Orangutan Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2007-2017, Ministry of Forestry 2009) to protect orangutans and their habitat, which was subsequently signed into law and officially launched by the president.”

Yet, the slash and burn deforestation–a cheap and dirty way to clear land–continues.

National Public Radio reported in “As Indonesia’s Annual Fires Rage, Plenty of Blame but No Responsibility” just a few days ago that much of the deforestation for palm oil is conducted illegally:

“Indonesia’s government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies’ concessions.

“There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, ‘You get in there and clear the land, and I’ll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,’ ” he says.

The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.

“The disaster is not in the fires,” says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. ‘It’s in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster.’ Wimar notes that previous administrations are partly to blame for nearly two decades of annual fires.”

All that said, NPR cites Indonesia’s current and fairly new president, Joko Widodo, referred to as Jokowi, to be a man willing to take proactive measure to combat this issue, “The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.”

I find it horrific that these land-clearing fires have been part of Business As Usual for so long. The fires in 1997, according to the UNEP report, cost Indonesia 10 billion dollars; this year’s fires, according to the New York Times, cost 14 billion. I’ve read several news reports that the carbon emissions from this year’s are more than what the US in it’s entirety emits. These figures easily refute the economic feasibility argument in favor of clearing forest for palm oil.

From ABC Australia’s article, “Indonesian Fires: Forget the Orangutans, Is the Blaze a Tipping Point for Carbon Emissions?,”:

“The fires in Indonesia are more than just a threat to endangered orangutans. They have shortened by up to two years the window to reduce carbon emissions and avoid runaway climate change, according to one of the CSIRO’s leading climate scientists.

The head of the Global Carbon Project at the CSIRO, Pep Canadell, said the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in 2 million years, because of the 1 billion tonnes of carbon released by the fires in a two-month period.

Dr Canadell said the daily emissions of the Indonesian fires had been equal to the daily emissions of the US, accelerating humanity’s progress along the upward line of global emissions by about one to two years.”

As Take Part reports, there are some ugly outcomes of the orangutans having to flee their habitat because of the fires, “Orangutans have more to fear than just the fire. The flames and smoke are pushing them out of their already reduced habitats and closer to human villages, where the adults are killed and the young apes are sold into the pet trade. In the past week, International Animal Rescue saved one such young orangutan, Gito, who had been kept in a cardboard box and left in the sun to die.”

By now these sorts of events should be taken as a death knell ringing across the globe. It seems humans have come so far from living in caves that we’ve forgotten we are part of nature and its patterns. These fires and the plight of the orangutans is emblematic that we cannot succeed by pulling apart ecosystems, using one part that is economically beneficially and saying to hell with the rest. These fires and the plight of orangutans is another example that large-scale mono-cropping is the days-gone-by way of agriculture; it does not work with such a densely populated planet as we live on today. The UNEP put these words to the root cause of the problem, “The current economic system, which is based on the assumption that most of what is taken from the environment is a public good, or, in other words, that it is “free,” is leading humanity to either overexploit what nature provides or to destroy it completely. This has created an economic system in which one service has been maximized, usually productivity–[such as quick, low-cost slash and burn clearing], at the expense of others.”

Here at The Ecotone Exchange our moniker is Positive Stories of the Environment. Is there anything positive in this mess? I don’t know, but I was compelled to write about it anyway…

In the short term, several animal rescues like International Animal Rescue and Sumatran Orangutan Society are working on the ground in Indonesia to get the animals to safety. Follow this link to a National Geographic photo-essay, “Saving Sumatra’s Orangutans.” 

There are models for better forestry practices (about which I’ve written extensively), and as the UNEP suggests, there’s much already deforested land available to palm oil growers–some in Indonesia, some elsewhere–and realistically, orangutans take up very little space on this planet, yet palm oil can grow many places.

One thing that’s got to change is environmental standards everywhere. Much of what we consume in America is made elsewhere–to a large degree because companies don’t want to adhere to the environmental, non-pollution, standards here. So we outsource our pollution.

Indonesia is home to the Sustainable Palm Oil Platform, an advocacy that trains and certifies sustainably grown palm oil. Another agency, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, offers similar certification. And several non-profits publish lists of palm oil free products. But palm oil is in everything–I don’t think we can responsibly-shop our way out of this one. Yesterday I thought it might be an option, because so many environmental problems are market-driven (as is this one).

Nor is this a simple issue of saving a charismatic species. Contrastingly, I am looking at the plight of the orangutans as an indicator, I’m looking at them as an indicator of human outcomes. Humans and orangutans share 97 per cent of our DNA. If these Great Apes face extinction from this level of habitat destruction, might not we be next?

This is truly “the horror, the horror.” In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this is all the character Kurtz can say after living alongside the atrocities of European colonization in Africa, after seeing how the “natives” are treated by his countrymen. In the movie adaptation of Conrad’s book, Apocalypse Now, the story is set during the Vietnam War and Kurtz’s last words are the same, “the horror, the horror.”

So I don’t know what the positive is in this story–maybe it is the awareness raised around the world. Maybe it’s that the ideas in the UNEP report can now become reality under the leadership of Indonesian President Widodo. Maybe it’s that the connection between a perceived human need for a product–palm oil, and the natural world–the burning forests and fleeing orangutans, and human welfare–health problems caused by smoke and smog from the fires, and economic ruin are made plain so that future disasters will be avoided by better planning.

My father’s legacy is ablaze and I think I’m going to adopt some orangutans as Christmas presents.

Wildlife Bridges: Safe Passage at Wildlife-Human Crossroads

By Neva Knott

In my recent post, “Losing Hope,” I gave the analogy of deer encroaching on yards, specifically in the town of Ashland, Oregon, as a way to talk about common sense and living in harmony with nature even when planning human spaces and endeavors.

As populations increase–those of human and other species–and natural resources decrease, co-habitation becomes more of an issue. Human development constantly destroys and fragments non-human habitat. Then what? Where do the animals go? How do they traverse landscapes to find food, water, shelter, and mates?

In the extreme, other species die because of this.

In another version of the extreme, or possibly the common sense to wildlife scenario, non-human species–deer, bear, cougar, coyotes, and wolves, to name the Oregon/Western states usual suspects–come on to territory now considered human, continuing to look for the resources they previously found there. In the case of Oregon’s wolves, this is the rub…ranchers don’t want wolves near livestock, but when wolves are forced out of their native feeding areas or have to travel fragmented landscapes, often crossing open range, they intersect with these human spaces. Though the livestock kill, or depredation, rate is very low, it’s a heated issue and one that governs wolf management.

Deer, bear, cougar, coyotes also make their way onto human landscapes, looking for food and water–because their foraging habitat has been destroyed or replaced with ranches, houses, shopping malls. The saddest example I’ve witnessed was a family of mule deer standing between Wal-Mart and the gym in Redmond, Oregon, train tracks behind them and pretty much surrounded by parking lots.

As these animals, and other species like marmot, field mice, frogs, birds, bats…move around to forage, they need cover for safety. Imagine a field mouse trying to make it across a large lawn with no shrubbery to hide under and with all sorts of predators above. This is the issue with habitat fragmentation.

Roads are one of the biggest threats to wildlife movement. In fact, I’ve heard it said that deer are the most dangerous animal in Oregon because so many of them cause car accidents when crossing roads.

Recently, wildlife managers/agencies in a handful of places have installed wildlife bridges as a way to provide habitat corridors, giving safe passage to our wildlife friends, and even providing habitat as part of their construction.

This video from Conservation Northwest explains the concept and shows construction on the I-90 corridor project in Washington State:

In 2012, Oregon Department of Transportation build the state’s first wildlife underpass along a high-collision stretch of Highway 97, a bit south of Redmond where I saw those poor stranded deer.

us 97 corridor

Aerial view of Highway 97 underpass. Photograph courtesy of ODOT.

Recently, in a follow-up piece in the Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Field Guide the rationale for the project was explained:

“Mule deer west of the Cascades typically migrate between the mountains in the summer and the lower elevation lands in the winter. Highway 97 presents a stark barrier in that journey…When deer need to get where they’re going, they often must conquer an obstacle course of fences and roads. Miles upon miles of human made barriers snake across even the most wide-open landscape.The deadliest obstacles they confront are dangerous, virtual walls of flying metal: highways full of high-speed traffic: ‘You have stranded herds of animals,’ says Kevin Halesworth, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Transportation.  ‘As the traffic level increases, the deer are less able to cross the highway until it gets to a point where from studies, the deer just won’t cross at all any more.'”

ODOT-WildlifeCrossing--0150_xgnfkm

Mule deer using the underpass. Photograph courtesy of ODOT.

The underpass created a connected habitat–or as it is often termed, habitat connectivity, for the mule deer, and created safe passage for both wildlife and motorists along the shared deer migration and Highway 97 corridor.

In a recent project status update published in The Bend Bulletin, state scientists reported an average of 95 deer per year were killed by car collisions before the underpass. Now that animals are using the underpass, the number of car-collision deaths has dropped “drastically.” In the same article, a scientist for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife explained, “hundreds of similar projects around the country have shown an 85 percent or better decrease in the number of animal-versus-vehicle collisions.”

Mule deer aren’t the only travelers through the underpass. Cameras track usage. ODOT told Oregon Public Broadcasting bobcat, raccoon, turkey, weasel, badger, coyotes, bears and more use the crossing: “We also had a bobcat that was not only using the structure to cross the highway, he was actively hunting in here and we have pictures of him capturing prey.”

The Highway 97 underpass is Oregon’s first wildlife corridor project. Animal Road Crossing–ARC–an agency dedicated to designing and building wildlife passageways, gave it the Exemplary Ecosystem Initiatives Award in 2012. ODOT is planning a second project along Highway 97, an overpass, which is scheduled for completion when funding is secured.

ODOT-NewCrossing-2-copy_s49icg

Illustration courtesy of ODOT.

Several US states and many places in Canada have installed wildlife bridges. You can see pictures of some of them here in this publication from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and on the website for ARC. The Center for Large Landscape Conservation published a reader-friendly report on the science of and need for wildlife connectivity, citing climate change as a key factor to consider in keeping wildlife habitat intact.

The issue of wildlife corridors is an aspect of defining critical habitat during the land use planning process, one the Western Governors’ Association is taking to task. The Association, in December 2013, launched the “Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT), a cooperative effort of 16 Western states to provide the public and industry a high-level overview of “crucial habitat” across the West.”

One of my favorite connectivity projects is Yellowstone to Yukon, an organization with the stated vision of, “An interconnected system of wild lands and waters stretching from Yellowstone to Yukon, harmonizing the needs of people with those of nature.”

9046884e-bae3-4140-b5f2-0c2181282561

The Y2Y area is outlined in white. Image courtesy of Yellowstone to Yukon.

The organization also calls their project “The Geography of Hope,” in that, “Stretching some 2,000 miles in length (3,218 km), the Yellowstone to Yukon region is one of the last intact mountain ecosystems left on Earth. It is home to the full suite of wildlife species that existed when European explorers first arrived and it is the source of clean, safe drinking water to 15 million North Americans.”

Wildlife bridges are common sense, don’t you think?

Harapan the Hairy Rhinoceros

There are only about 100 Sumatran rhinos, also called Hairy rhinos, left in existence and only nine of them are cared for in captivity. Of those nine, there is only one that lives outside of Southeast Asia. This special guy is Harapan, affectionately known as Harry and who in 2007, was the third of three calves born at the Cincinnati Zoo over six years.

Even more remarkable are the additional successes of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). In 1984, a captive breeding program began but there was no success until 1997, when CREW scientists began using endocrinology and ultrasonography to learn about the reproductive physiology of Sumatran rhinos. Ultimately, this resulted in the first Sumatran rhino calf bred and born in captivity. Harapan’s older brother Andalas was born on September 13, 2001. In 2004, his sister Suci was born. Unfortunately, Suci passed away in 2014 after a prolonged illness that was aggressively treated by staff and veterinarians for months. Suci had hemochromatosis, which is the same condition to which her mother succumbed. Hemochromatosis is an iron storage disease that is known to be inheritable in humans. It likely is inheritable in rhinos also.

In 2007, the Cincinnati and Los Angeles Zoos (where Andalas was living) agreed to send Andalas to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, a breeding facility in the Way Kambas National Park of Indonesia, to replace an old, infertile bull. In 2012, a healthy son was born to Andalas in Sumatra.

Andalas nudging Ratu Photo by B. Bryant, Taronga Conservation Society, Australia

Andalas nudging Ratu
Photo by B. Bryant, Taronga Conservation Society, Australia

This month, the Cincinnati Zoo announced that Harapan will be moved to Indonesia. He is sexually mature and his opportunity to breed and contribute to his species’ survival exists only at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. There are three possible mates awaiting Harry’s arrival.

Listed as Critically Endangered on The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species, the Sumatran rhino is the smallest and last form of the Two-horned hairy rhinos that have lived on the planet for 20 million years. Between 1985 and 1994, a total of 40 rhinos were captured for captive breeding including the seven and three sent to the United States and United Kingdom, respectively, from areas converted to plantations.

The historic range for Sumatran rhinoceros is from the foothills of the Himalayas in Bhutan and north-eastern India, through southern China (Yunnan), Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Viet Nam and the Malay Peninsula, and onto the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia.

Sumatran range map courtesy of The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Sumatran range map courtesy of The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Hairy rhinos live in tropical rainforest and montane moss forest, mainly in hilly areas near water sources. Males are primarily solitary, but can have overlapping territories with females, which are commonly found with their young. Their lifespan is estimated at about 35-40 years, gestation length of approximately 15-16 months, and age at sexual maturity estimated at 6-7 years for females and 10 years for males.

Significant threats to survival of this species include poaching and reduced population viability. Hunting is primarily driven by the demand for Traditional Asian Medicine that erroneously believes that rhino horns and other body parts have medicinal qualities. Centuries of over-hunting has reduced this species to a tiny percentage of its former population and range. As a result, breeding activity is infrequent, successful births are uncommon in many populations, and there is a severe risk of inbreeding. These circumstances necessitate this big move for Harry, who is symbolic of decades of cooperative conservation efforts among many dedicated scientists in multiple zoos.

Harapan is the only Sumatran rhino on view to the public anywhere in the world. Zoo visitors can find him in Wildlife Canyon daily from 9 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., weather permitting, until he leaves for Indonesia, the date for which has not yet been determined.

 

 

 

 

Entering the World of Whales: the Exquisite Photography of Bryant Austin

by Shauna Potocky

A rare encounter as captured by Bryce Groark. Bryant Austin and a Sperm whale meet. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

A rare encounter as captured by Bryce Groark. Bryant Austin and a Sperm whale meet. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin has seen whales in a way most people will never experience—he has floated for hours in their realm simply waiting for them, waiting for a connection and an opportunity. Today that patience and care represents the most exquisite collection of life sized and detailed whale photographs in the world.

Austin has traveled to remarkable locations in order to wait—places such as the Caribbean, Australia and the South Pacific. When his waiting results in a connection, both whales and the world are rewarded. He is then able to capture and create composite photographs resulting in 1:1 scale portraits of whales—life-sized. Yes, whale sized photographs.

Austin’s work has brought the essence of whales to humanity in a way that is profound. This work has resulted in worldwide recognition, from gallery exhibitions to whaling conventions.

Bryant Austin specializes in 1:1 scale, life sized composite images of whales. This is a Minke whale composite on display during an exhibit at Tamada Museum. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin specializes in 1:1 scale, life sized composite images of whales. This is a Minke whale composite on display during an exhibit at Tamada Museum, Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Recently I had the opportunity to connect with Austin and ask about his inspiration, challenges and insight.

Shauna Potocky: Your work is recognized around the world and is so incredibly unique. What inspired you to do this work?

Bryant Austin: I’ve always been unsatisfied by the way whales have been photographed underwater. In the beginning I thought that there were no other options for photographing them underwater in ways that would make them more compelling.

By a completely random event in 2004 with a humpback whale mother and calf, who moved right up to me while I was on snorkel—they were less than six feet away at times and I could see for the first time, their true colors and all of the fine texture and detail that makes them real. This is what started the process for me to think about how I could photographically capture those moments and recreate the emotional sensations I experienced.

SP: Your incredible body of work has led to you to participate in conferences or other opportunities that address issues facing whales and marine mammals. What meetings or events have you participated in? What role did your work contribute to these meetings? What was the outcome or your thoughts on the proceedings?

BA: In 2008 I had my first opportunity to exhibit my work at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Santiago, Chile. The exhibit itself didn’t change any of the outcomes. However, there were indicators of its power to move viewers. Outside of the main meeting room, where everyone breaks for coffee, were massive tables filled with brochures and pamphlets either for or against whaling. As my exhibit was in the main lobby, we asked the IWC Secretariat if we could display my first life size portrait of a humpback whale calf in this area and with no text of any kind. The Secretariat said “no,” stating that it would be too provocative and contentious to do so. The idea of a life sized portrait of a baby whale being contentious made me realize that my photographs may indeed have the power to inspire change in the coming years.

SP: Art can be a powerful tool for education and engagement. Have you found that your work has inspired others to care for the ocean, for whales or other marine mammals?

BA: When my work was first exhibited in Norway, I realized it had the potential to speak to a wider audience, including those living in countries that commercially hunt whales. I remember a press conference where former whalers were invited to see my work. At times they were moved to silence and I was captivated by their expressions as they studied my prints, seeing a whale in a way they’ve never known.

SP: What challenges did you face along the way to following your path working with whales and sharing your work as an artist?

BA: The biggest challenge is funding. My work had no precedent for a reason; it is very expensive and risky. It can cost as much as 2,000 dollars per day to work alone at sea with these creatures. I float alone in the ocean among them and patiently wait for them to approach me on their terms. I may go three months in the field and only have one or two encounters that are meaningful to my work. Other times, I may be in the field for five weeks and return home with nothing. This is the risk I must face in order to create something very special that has never existed before.

Even after a successful field season, the challenges continue as I must raise enough money to frame and mount my largest works which can cost as much as 85,000 dollars. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate exactly why this has never been done before. In a lot of ways this work shouldn’t exist, but it does so, against all the odds.

Bryant Austin's book, Beautiful Whale, brings the reader into the world of whales. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s book, Beautiful Whale, brings the reader into the world of whales. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

SP: You recently published the book, Beautiful Whale. Can you share with us a highlight for yourself in completing this book?

BA: One of the highlights was returning to the Kingdom of Tonga in 2011. Five years had passed since my last trip there and it was cathartic to be back. I was there for only five weeks and was attempting to compose a few more portraits for the book. I had many great and memorable encounters, and it was great to apply all that I’ve learned over the years with the whales who originally inspired my work.

SP: Your art has been featured in some remarkable locations. Do you have a favorite exhibit? And, do you have any upcoming exhibits scheduled?

BA: The one exhibition that always stands out in my mind is Beautiful Whale at the Tamada Museum in Tokyo, 2010. My largest photographs were printed and mounted for the first time and debuted at this museum. It was only the second time I had ever seen these prints full size and it was a heartfelt experience to see the responses from the overwhelming number of visitors that attended.

My most recent show at the USA Gallery at the Australian National Maritime Museum came down this year. I currently have no plans for another major solo show in the near future; however, several of my prints will be featured in a group show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts starting in October, 2015.

SP: What do you feel is the most critical issue facing whales today? What can people do to help protect marine life?

BA: There are many issues threatening the survival of whales today and few that we can change as individuals. However, the one thing we can do as individuals is to simply stop eating seafood. It is estimated that 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die entangled in commercial fishing gear each year for our love of seafood.

More whales are dying every year entangled in commercial fishing gear than at the very height of commercial whaling. I would encourage your readers to make a commitment to no longer eat anything from the ocean.

Reflecting on Austin’s comments regarding entanglements, important quantitative information is coming to light. In a study published in Conservation Biology in 2006 by by Andrew J. Read, Phebe Drinker and Simon Northridge, the paper focused on determining global rates of bycatch and subsequently reported “an annual estimate of 653,365 marine mammals, comprising 307,753 cetaceans and 345,611 pinnipeds.” Today efforts are increasing to address this issue.

Bryant Austin's whale photography is extraordinary. This image is titled, A Mother Listens. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s whale photography is extraordinary. This image is titled, A Mother Listens. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s work captivates. He has connected people to one of the terrestrial world’s greatest mysteries—the ocean and the world of whales. Through his work, book and exhibitions, these monumental beings receive the awe and respect they deserve. Yet, their journeys and livelihood are not without peril. Today, the world is more equipped to protect marine mammals than any other time in history. If we cannot directly stop whaling or the impacts to marine mammals, such as entanglements, we can directly address the marketplace that drives the harvest or mechanism of their decline. When we make choices the marketplace listens and that, scaled up, results in change.

A Near Complete Commercial Trade Ban on Ivory in the United States

ivory crush

Ivory Crush at Times Square (photo from the Creative Commons)

It is estimated that one elephant is killed in Africa every 15 minutes, mostly conducted by militias and militants turning tusks into cash to be used for funding efforts towards destabilizing nations and looting them of their resources. Elephants could be extinct in a few decades at this pace.

Two years ago in Tanzania, President Obama announced an executive order to direct action and better organize the U.S. government’s efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This week, he proposed a new rule that is a derivative of that prior declaration. So much will come of this including investment by the U.S. Agency for International Development in new programs across more than a dozen countries to help combat wildlife trafficking. Congress has called for a study on the link between poaching and terrorism, and the Department of Defense is now getting involved to track down terrorist poachers. Private donations are resulting in additional weapons and game wardens to help fight, throughout Africa, the militants that target and kill elephants for ivory to fund their activities. Botswana has banned all sport hunting of elephants, and has begun humane ecotourism development to support their economy.

When I posted on the Facebook page for my own blog, The Whisker Chronicles, the news of President Obama’s issuing of a proposed rule that will establish a near-complete ban on the commercial ivory trade in America, some readers posted compelling questions. What does a near-complete ban mean? Why is there not a complete ban?

Existing U.S. ivory regulations mostly concern the import and export of the material from the country, while allowing some legal trade of the material between states. The new regulation, which will be finalized later this year, would restrict interstate trade to antique items that are over 100 years old or contain a minimal amount of ivory. The proposed rule also contains new restrictions on the international trade.

Prior to this past Saturday’s announcement, many animal conservationists had argued that allowing some legal ivory trade provided a cover for criminals who were actually selling illegal ivory. Ivory has been part of an international commercial industry for items such as piano keys, dominoes, false teeth, billiard balls, along with a multitude of every day items for various purposes. Unfortunately, there are also a multitude of trinkets, carvings and adornments from an era of luxurious indulgences that gave no regard to the life taken for such purposeless things.

Much of the world is no longer willing to participate in or tolerate this behavior. It is challenging and sometimes impractical to gather up every antique ivory item created decades ago or to spend resources to punish those long in possession of ivory items, however acquired. Now even antique dealers will be under more scrutiny. In a 2009 investigation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials seized more than a ton of ivory from a Philadelphia art store that had been manipulated to appear old enough to meet federal standards. Ivory from that seizure was destroyed at an “ivory crush” event in Times Square last month. For a full explanation of the changes, visit The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Proposed Revisions document.

Personally, I have legally handled ivory and other animal parts that are banned for commercial trade in various roles as a zoo keeper, aquarist and zoo volunteer. There are certain exceptions to the laws about possession when items such as ivory were not illegally obtained and will not be sold for commercial gain but will be used for scientific education. Even then, those possessors are merely being allowed to hold the items which really are property of the U.S. Government and can be seized at any time. The ivory I handled was the end of a tusk that had broken off naturally from a young, healthy elephant that lived in the zoo. There was nothing nefarious about it. But the looks on the faces of the kids that got to touch a real elephant tusk while looking out on exhibit at the elephant it once was attached to was priceless. I doubt that any of those kids started thinking about how to make money from that tusk.

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)

The Extraordinary Gift of Common Species: Rethinking the Charismatic Species Paradigm

A female Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

A female Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By Richard Telford

Can we view the ubiquitous eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with the same sense of wonder or spirit of inquiry with which we view more exotic animals—the African elephants (Loxodonta exoptata and adaurora), for example, or the gray wolf (Canis lupus)? This question (paraphrased, here) was posed by Dr. Laird Christensen to our Field Journaling class at Green Mountain College in the summer of 2012, and it is a question upon which I have since often reflected, both on the individual level and on the larger scale. The latter two species in the preceding comparison are largely seen in conservation circles as charismatic or flagship species, which the 1995 United Nations Environment Program’s Global Biodiversity Assessment defined as “popular, charismatic species that serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action.” By stimulating such awareness and action, the reasoning goes, both the charismatic species and the larger systems they inhabit can be preserved, benefitting life at all scales. When done right, it is a win-win approach.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

In many courses in the GMC Environmental Studies graduate program, we analyzed campaigns that featured charismatic species as a kind of holdfast with which to anchor public support for broader conservation efforts. While I came to accept the value of this approach, I often found and still find myself conflicted over it, as it creates a hierarchy in which megafauna are disproportionately valued to the exclusion of virtually all other organisms within staggeringly complex systems of life. Is this a sustainable long-term approach by which to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity? What does such a hierarchical approach say about the way we value life? What does it teach the next generation of conservationists?

While charismatic species can evoke strong response from the public, building support for important conservation actions, the majority of the public will never have any direct interaction with these species except perhaps captive specimens in zoo settings. Thus, support is elicited for a cause from which the general public is largely removed, and that support is often built principally on aesthetic factors, absent a full ecological context. Such support, in my view, is inherently limited in what it can accomplish on a greater scale, and it is likewise potentially short-lived. The reliance on charismatic species to drive conservation efforts may in fact have the potential to undermine those efforts by reducing the public’s personal investment in them to an unintentionally detached, flavor-of-the-month mentality. I do not mean to suggest that charismatic species have no conservation value; on the contrary, their potential to generate both personal and financial investment is well-established. Instead, I am suggesting that such support does little on a larger scale unless it is framed by a more developed set of personal connections to the natural world, connections that are forged by consistent, direct experience framed by a fuller ecological context. It is the common species that inhabit our day to day lives that have the power to forge and meaningfully develop those connections, much more so, I would argue, than exotic species that elicit a strong but potentially fleeting response.

The cover of Rachel Carson's 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

The cover of Rachel Carson’s 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

Rachel Carson, in the preface to her 1955 book The Edge of the Sea, writes, “To understand the shore, it is not enough to catalogue its life. Understanding comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating at its shores—blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold.” Here, Carson’s “eye and ear of the mind” represent the deepest connections to nature that we can make, but to make those connections of the mind we must first stand on the beach; we must run fine sand between our fingers, gaze upon the complex interactions of tidal pool life, feel the blast of wind that has shaped the land for millennia, hear the roar of the surf breaking on the coast. To fully value natural systems, we must fully immerse ourselves in and interact with those systems. It is the common species, rather than remote and exotic ones, that allow us to do so in the most meaningful and efficacious way for long-term conservation of the Earth’s biodiversity.

This summer, our yard has been the site of a flurry of nesting activity among the common songbirds that spend their summers in our region, particularly the American robin (Turdus migratorius) and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). This winter, my six-year-old daughter and I made a robin nesting platform, which we attached this spring to the standing remnant trunk of a once-towering eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) at the edge of our yard. That platform remains vacant, but a pair of robins did in fact nest in the unfinished soffit of an adjacent shed. During early summer, we watched the parent birds harvest worms from our yard and shuttle them to the growing nestlings. Several weeks ago, late in the day, with the nestlings close to fledging, I carried my daughter up on a ladder inside the shed to view them for a moment. We slipped quietly in and out in less than five minutes, but the view of the downy nestlings with mouths stretched upwards has remained and will remain in my daughter’s memory. That image—framed by the coming dusk, the cooling air, the waning buzz of carpenter bees mixed with the rising evening bird chorus—can shape her connection to the natural world in a way that no virtual image of a more exotic species can. In fact, such experiences can potentially provide a transferrable, interpolative context for more exotic species for which a direct experiential context may be less accessible or altogether absent. When we understand the complex interactions of one natural system, we can at least imagine the like processes of another system.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing, Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

The North American Association for Environmental Education, defining “Standards of Excellence” for environmental education in 2010, noted, “Providing opportunities for the growth and development of the whole child, opportunities to develop a sense of wonder about nature, and earnest engagement in discovery about the real world are the foundation for learning in early childhood.” For my children this summer, the opportunities to build such a foundation have been manifold, provided by common, readily accessible species: a returning mating pair of nesting Canada geese (Branta canadensis); scores of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus); an eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) rescued from the center of a country road during our drive to swimming lessons; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia), twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), and other dragonflies hunting the overgrown ecotone that separates our cut yard from the surrounding forest; turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) shadowing the ground in soaring, dihedral flight; eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) sidling along our garden fence. All of these common summer residents of our region have evoked in our children and in us that sense of wonder that is so crucial to the long-term preservation of the natural world. We have viewed each as an integral part of a marvelous, complex, and unified system to which, in reality, we are adjunct, despite are disproportionate capacity to degrade it. In understanding that system more fully, we cannot help but understand ourselves more fully too.

I have previously written about the complexities of forming and developing a conservation ethic, both in ourselves and in others, and I am fully convinced that such an ethic is shaped primarily by direct, daily actions and interactions. Personal investment in a handful of exotic species, absent these meaningful daily interactions with common species, is not enough to forge and develop that ethic. Such an ethic, which can guide our daily choices in the spheres we influence, can contribute to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity in a way that remote investment in a handful of compelling species cannot. As Robert Michael Pyle observes in The Thunder Tree, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” The appeal of charismatic species taps a laudable impulse and can be a valuable conservation tool in its own right, but the effectiveness of that tool is inherently limited. When we open ourselves to the charisma of and deep connection to common species, and foster that openness in others, we enrich our lives on the individual scale and optimize the efficacy of conservation efforts on the broader scale. By doing the latter, we can likewise enrich the lives of generations to follow.

White Nose Syndrome: Formidable but Not Undefeatable

By Maymie Higgins

Some months ago I shared with readers information about the ecological and economical value bats provide in the widely various ecosystems in which they live. They are particularly valuable in protecting crops from destruction by insects, gobbling up so many bugs that bats are estimated to save farmers up to $53 billion in pest control each year. Bats are also very important for pollination and tropical reforestation. More than 1,331 species of bats have been discovered worldwide. But my favorite fact about bats is that they are the only mammal to evolve true flight. There are other animals that glide but bats are the only mammal that truly have wings and self-propelled flight capabilities. Such marvels!

Bats are now vulnerable to a large and rapidly increasing threat known as white-nose syndrome (WNS), named for the white fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans that appears on the muzzle and other body parts of hibernating bats. WNS is associated with extensive deaths in eastern North America, affecting entire colonies in some cases. WNS invades the nose, mouth and wings of bats during hibernation, when bats’ immune systems are largely shut down. Research indicates that the fungus may lead to dehydration, causing them to wake more frequently and burn precious fat reserves, which leads to starvation. WNS has spread rapidly across the eastern United States and Canada, and has been detected as far west as Oklahoma. WNS has killed more than 5.7 million bats in eastern North America.

According to White-Nose Syndrome.org, at the end of the 2014-2015 hibernating season, bats with WNS were confirmed in the following 26 states and five Canadian provinces: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec. The fungus that causes WNS has also been confirmed in Minnesota and Mississippi.

In this context, it is with cautious jubilance that I share the news that 150 bats that were part of the first field trial were released after having been successfully treated for WNS. Scientists and conservationists that are part of the large network of collaborators combating WNS gathered in the evening of Monday, May 18, 2015 at the historic Mark Twain Cave Complex in Hannibal, MO and released these bats back to the wild.

Sybill Amelon, USDA Forest Service research wildlife biologist.  Credit Katie Gillies, Bat Conservation International.

Sybill Amelon, USDA Forest Service research wildlife biologist.
Credit Katie Gillies, Bat Conservation International.

Beginning in 2012, Dr. Christopher Cornelison and other Georgia State University peers determined that the bacterium, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, can inhibit the growth of some fungi. They found in the lab that Rhodococcus rhodochrous, without even directly touching the Pseudogymnoascus destructans, could strongly inhibit its growth. Dr. Cornelison, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Dr. Sybill Amelon and research plant pathologist Dr. Daniel Lindner continued to conduct laboratory research on the application of this bacterium, and in the winter of 2014 conducted field trials in Missouri and Kentucky caves, thanks to funding by many organizations including Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. 

Multi-agency collaboration has been integral to the search for a treatment for White Nose Syndrome. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers most of the federal funds provided by Congress to fight the disease, and many state wildlife agencies contribute staff and funds of their own in surveying for the fungus as it has traveled throughout their regions. There are also numerous private donors. This elaborate network of scientists and financial backers will continue this management-based research to control the mortality of WNS and, I believe, eventually eradicate its destruction of bats.

Here is a video produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife describing WNS and the importance of bats.

Featured image courtesy of whitenosesyndrome.org