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.

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.

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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.

What to do with your old clothes…

By Neva Knott

Every August, I go back to school shopping, even though I’m no longer a student. But, I’m a teacher, and having a few new clothes is just part of my routine as summer ends and I return to work. The last few years, I’ve joined a friend and her two daughters, and we make a day of it. And we’re not the only shoppers out there looking for that first-day-back perfect outfit–according to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent $26 billion in July 2014 for back-to-school fashion. NRF also reports that clothing is still the largest category of customer spending for BTS, outselling electronics, even.

Part of my new clothes ritual is cleaning my closets and drawers. I am not a wasteful person, thus rarely throw away a piece of clothing unless it is truly worn out. I pass items on to friends, give to women’s shelters and homeless teen programs. But this year, I took time to research what to do with the worn out items–rather than throw them into the trash bin. What I found was encouraging:

H & M runs a recycle program in each of their stores, and not just for clothes bought there. So as I sorted all those stretched and stained t-shirts and the favorite cashmere sweater with the moth holes, I put them in a bag and dropped them in the bin next time I was at the mall. Bonus–I got a $15 coupon to use in-store.

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H & M states that “Of the thousands of tonnes of textiles that people throw away every year, as much as 95 percent could be re-worn or recycled.” The company is working hard to promote fashion waste reduction, both in manufacturing and by encouraging customers to rethink what they do with clothes they no longer wear. Their promotional video, “The Break-up,” narrated by a talking shirt, explains the program:

As much as I love autumn and returning to work, I love my flip-flops. As an avid flip-flop wearer, I was enthused to find that Old Navy works with TerraCycle to collects worn-out flip-flops and send them to recycling to be made into an array of new products. This youtube clip shows the store-to-new things process. Some flip-flops become picnic tables, some become pavers. I’ve even seen them made into door mats.

And who doesn’t buy new jeans, the American uniform, for back-to-school? H & M will take in jeans along with everything else, but I wanted to find a denim specific recycling program. JCrew is currently–until September 30, 2014–running a Denim Drive for blue jeans recycling. Any jeans, any brand. And you’ll get a $20 coupon toward a new pair of JCrew jeans for donating your old blues. While talking with a salesperson there about the promotion, I learned that the jeans will be recycled into fiber insulation.

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In addition to the innovative and useful recycling programs (I say useful become some recycled goods don’t become a truly useful something new), a I found a couple of clothing labels that are striving for waste reduction in their sourcing of materials and production processes.

prAna has a comprehensive sustainability program, often choosing organic cotton and hemp as raw materials, and works with The Textiles Exchange, “a non-profit organization operating internationally committed to the responsible expansion of sustainable textiles across the global textile value chain.” They also work with bluesign, a worldwide standard that is applied to production chains to measure the safety and sustainability of raw materials used by chemical and manufacturing companies: “For prAna, the bluesign partnership allows us to assess every aspect of our supply chain for guaranteed environmental and human safety, as well as easily identify like-minded companies for future partnerships. Globally, bluesign partners embrace a holistic approach to production that’s a step further than simply ‘eco-friendly’, and considers such additional aspects as air and water emissions, occupational health and resource productivity – that’s a step forward that we believe in, and are proud to be part of.”

And here’s a bit about organic cotton:

Patagonia launched its Common Threads Partnership program in 2005. The Partnership is more comprehensive than recycling: “Through our partnership with bluesign® Technologies we are reducing energy and water use and toxic substances in our manufacturing processes. We also use environmentally conscious fibers in many of our products, including organic cotton and recycled polyester, and try to minimize our packaging and transportation waste.” More about materials sourcing for Patagonia products can be found at The Footprint Chronicles. Patagonia also urges customers to wear the heck out of their clothes. Here’s a great little video from Patagonia about the stories well-worn clothes:

It’s encouraging to know that a such a huge industry as fashion is looking toward a sustainable future. What our clothes are made and how they are manufactured is as important as the growing of our food. Sustainability in the fashion industry promotes clean water and air and soil quality, reduces exposure to chemicals and toxins for garment workers, and reduces chemicals in the finished products.

In terms of individual contributions to making life better on our overcrowded and resource-depleted planet, the types of clothes we buy–and how many of them–are a significant factor.What we do with them after also carries weight. It is exciting to find these programs, and to know I can keep my worn-out duds out of the landfill. And, maybe my old flip-flops will welcome you home.

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What if every person treated trees as if they symbolized life?

By Neva Knott

Yesterday, I dug up the white pine I planted two years ago at my mom’s memorial. Then, I put it along the line between her back yard and the neighbor’s, next to a mountain hemlock. A few months later, I put in the fence, and the pine is destined to grow too large now that it’s in a confined space. So I dug up the pine and moved it into the tree line, or mini-forest, between the back yard and the school’s field below.

Let me back up for a minute here. In 2012 I lived in Portland, Oregon and my mom lived in Olympia, Washington. In a house she bought when it was built in 1982. In May of 2012, she passed away. She didn’t want a formal funeral, but wanted family and “friends who are family” to get together and remember her. So my sister and I held a small memorial for her at her house. At the time, we were planning on selling it; at the time, I had no idea it would become my current home. Particulars changed as I closed my mom’s estate, so I moved “back home” that fall. I have dogs, thus the fence.

One “friend who is family,” Jim, collects scraggly, displaced trees he finds. He’d had this little white pine in a gallon pot for a while, just waiting for it to find a home. Knowing my love of trees, and my fondness for big pines like the white and the Ponderosa, Jim told me he’d save it for me until I knew where I wanted it to be. I was staying with Jim & his wife the morning of mom’s memorial. Over coffee I said, “let’s plant our tree for mom.” During the memorial, we dug a hole, planted the then small white pine, and left it to grow as a memento of her life in that house.

Yesterday, while working gently with a shovel and then my fingers to massage the tree’s roots out of the ground so that I could transplant it, I asked myself this question: What would happen if everyone treated a tree as if it symbolized a life (thinking along the lines of this pine symbolizing my mom’s life)?

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As I worked the root system out of the ground, un-planted the pine tree, and wrapped it in a wet towel to carry down to it’s new place, I worked through the implications of my idea: 

On a global level, the planet would be in significantly less danger from climate change. Deforestation is one of the root causes of global warming. Also, trees breathe in carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas. Tree root systems control below-ground water flow by stopping erosion, filtering and absorbing water as it flows through the soil they’re planted in, thus fewer extreme floods with more trees, and fewer droughts–worsening flooding and drought is linked to climate change.

Tree leaves also filter pollution out of the air, working to keep the air clean. Not only would climate change be much less of an issue, air and water would be cleaner.

Trees are connected to food production. Obviously, some trees bear edibles–fruits, nuts, seeds. Trees feed animals and birds and bugs as well as humans. Many types of tree bark are forage for wildlife. Trees keep rivers and streams cool enough for fish species to flourish.

On the community level, urban trees keep cities cooler, and help to counteract the “heat island effect,” something that happens when air temperatures rise because of streets, sidewalks, and buildings. Trees add aesthetic and economic value to neighborhoods. The more trees left standing when spaces are developed for human use, fewer animals such as deer and coyote wander into cities, looking for habitat and food, sometimes causing conflicts with humans. Trees make our parks shady and cool on a hot summer’s day.

Each person’s life is better because of trees. The air we breathe is cleaner, as is the water we drink. Studies show that looking at greenery lowers anxiety and alleviates stress. By being surrounded by trees, humans feel more connected to all of life. Trees also provide raw material for homes and furniture and wood to burn for heat and cooking. Trees increase a home’s value and decrease heating and cooling costs.

Trees have been called the lungs of the earth. Not only are they symbiotic with humans because they give off oxygen that we breathe in, and take in carbon dioxide that we breathe out and produce/emit in various other ways, they connect to the other aspects of nature that make life on earth possible.

As I tamp down the soil around the pine’s roots in it’s new spot, I think again, what would happen if every person treated trees as if they symbolized a life?

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Trash-Less Travel

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Typical inflight meal. Photography courtesy of wiki commons.

By Neva Knott

The first time I ever considered that packaging and single-use disposable goods were a problem was on a Spring Break road trip to the Utah desert during college, circa 1988. I was traveling with friends. We stopped at a fast food place. As we un-bagged our food, one of my companions remarked, while looking at the plastic utensils, “So much packaging.”

What? Naively, I replied with something along the lines of, “Yeah, but if people throw it away instead of on the ground…”. Until that moment, I’d never considered that trash was an issue, unless it was left as litter on the landscape. I’d also never considered the problem with disposables.

My friend’s comment that March day 26 years ago left an indelible mark, and changed my behavior. I began taking my own coffee cup and water bottle to campus with me, started washing and reusing plastic bags and brown paper lunch sacks, and avoiding straws and plastic forks, knives, and spoons. A simple change of habit, and a simple shift in thinking. How many one-use food service items have I saved from the landfill in that span of time?

As I continue to travel, I continue to have an awareness of the trash generated by travel. Airports are full of single-use, grab-and-go products. Each on-board snack, beverage, or meal comes in its own container. Most of the packaging is non-recyclable and most airlines don’t recycle anyway. As I observed while sitting at my gate in Heathrow on my recent trip to Ireland, most people walk by and toss, not even looking to put the plastics in the plastics bin, the paper in the paper bin–signaling that established airport recycling programs are ineffective.

In her article, “Leaving Trash Behind,” Christine Negroni of The New York Times cites National Resource Defense Council figures, “An estimated 7.5 million pounds of trash is generated every day. While the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, says that 75 percent of that trash is recyclable, it has found that only 20 percent reaches a recycling center.” Negroni also acknowledges that research and action on this issue are lacking, “The council’s figures are from 2006, but are the most recent. The lack of current data was one concern of the Air Transport Association and the Airports Council International.”

NRDC’s 2006 report, Trash Landings, explains, “The U.S. airline industry discards enough aluminum cans each year to build 48 Boeing 747 planes.” And “9,000 tons of plastic,” along with “enough newspapers and magazines to fill a football field to a depth of more than 230 feet.” On a personal level, passengers generate 1.28 pounds of waste per person, per departure. On my recent trip to Ireland, I visited four airports to get from Washington State to Cork; if I consumed at the average rate, I would have left behind 5.12 pounds of trash.

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Typical inflight single-use snack items. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

But I don’t consume at the average rate. I figure I have a choice as a consumer to buy or not to buy products in a terminal. So, to avoid taking part in the rampant disposability that is modern air travel, I plan ahead:

  • As much as possible, I pack fruit, nuts, and hard vegetables so that I don’t have to eat plane food or stave off hunger with expensive terminal fare. Smoked salmon and tinned meat, like Trader Joe’s smoked trout, also travel well, and don’t have to be kept cold.
  • I always travel with a water bottle. I fill it at a fountain as soon as I’m through the security line, and have found most flight attendants are pleasantly willing to pour water into it for me during the flight. Before I left for Ireland, I upgraded my re-usable bottle. I bought a Klean Kanteen insulated bottle, so now I can use it for water and tea (again, flight attendants obliged).
  • And, I keep a fork and a spoon in my handbag. This way, I can say “no thanks” to plastic utensils when I do have to purchase a meal while waiting for my connecting flight.

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Photograph courtesy of Klean Kanteen website.

On the longest stretch of my recent trip to Ireland, ten hours from San Francisco to Heathrow, I counted–I was offered eight beverage cups (and took none). Multiplied by the 500 or so passengers on an international flight? That’s over 4,000 cups. And that’s just cups–the Federal Aviation Administration, in Recycling, Reuse and Waste Reduction at Airports, published in 2013, states that in flight kitchens, “several types of waste” are generated in preparing on board meals. And, as any flyer knows, those meals come heavily packaged, thus incur more waste when consumed. Times 500 or so passengers per plane.

Green America, in the report, What Goes Up Must Come Down: The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry, February 2010, suggests that “an additional 500 more tons of waste could be recycled each year.”

The social norms of air travel don’t seem to include a focus on sustainability. Thankfully, organizations such as the NRDC and the FAA are working to shift perspectives and habits. NRDC’s report explains that 75 percent of airport waste is recyclable or compostable. The council also calculated that, if airports recycled at the national average of 31 percent, “enough energy would be saved to power 20, 000 households,” and carbon emissions would be reduced by an amount equaling 80,000 cars. Furthermore, “four airports with recycling programs studied by NRDC are achieving savings of more than $100, 000 annually.”

In researching for this article, I did find some interesting programs in place:

  • Oakland International Airport’s website explains that OAK is one of the first airports to recycle pillows–which are normally thrown away at the end of the flight. Oakland’s pillows are recycled into insulation or are used for making furniture.
  • NPR’s Julie Rose reports (December 2012), North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport uses worms to “eat through organic waste.” The worms have helped the airport reduce its waste sent to the landfill by 70 percent. Interestingly, the program even launders clothing left behind when a traveler’s suitcase is overweight, and then donates the clothing.
  • An article in Onboard Hospitality shares the anecdote from the 1990’s of American Airlines flight attendants spearheading an onboard recycling program, selling the recyclables, and then using the $200, 000 they earned to buy a plot of land for The Nature Conservancy.
  • Green America’s report suggests travelers take recyclables off the plane themselves, and recycle them at their destination. The article also includes a recycling report card for the major airlines–and nobody earned an A+.

The push to address the issue of the trash of travel is encouraging news. But, recycling is still a form of waste management. Lowering the amount of waste is crucial, and doable. As consumers, we do have choices. The power of our choices is that we can change our habits, which in turn will change the amount of trash we pile up when we fly.

Green Ireland–Sustainable Land Use

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Along the River Lee. Cork, Ireland. Photograph, Neva Knott.

By Neva Knott

I’m in Cork, Ireland for a summer writer’s workshop. Of course, I’ve been experiencing this lovely place with a naturalist’s eye. Here’s what I’ve learned…

The River Lee is beautiful to walk along on a summer’s evening here in Cork, Ireland. As I meander along the banks of the Lee, I find two things interesting about this urban waterway, ecologically speaking.

First, much of the riparian zone is intact as the river flows into Cork’s city center. Between the banks and the footpaths stand chestnut, oak, maple, lilac and other deciduous tree species and shrubbery. This vegetation is important to the river’s health because it regulates water temperature so that fish species can thrive and stabilizes the bank, helping with erosion, keeping the river free of sediment, and absorbs storm water overflow should the river rise rapidly.

The second important detail is that the water is clean. I can see to the bottom in many places. The urban rivers I’ve lived along in Oregon–the Willamette and the Columbia–aren’t clean, after years of industrial use. They are murky.

The River Lee is just one example of Ireland’s water quality. According to the blog Move to Ireland, 85 per cent of the country’s lakes and 70 per cent of its rivers are in good quality. What good quality means in environmental terms is that much of the ecology of the waterway is intact–habitat is functioning, vegetation isn’t too degraded, and the water is clean of sediment, pollution such as farm chemical run-off, industrial waste and other pollutants such as trash and fecal matter from farming or human sewage.

Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine runs a Rural Environmental Protection Scheme, working with farmers to keep waterways clean. This is an important consideration because 65 per cent of Ireland’s land is used for farming.

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Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Food Harvest 2020 is another scheme developed by the Department of Agriculture. The idea is to leverage Ireland’s primary industry–farming–as a globally recognized food source while branding Green Ireland as sustainably farmed products. Much of the livestock here is grass-fed already. Much of the farming here is low-input, meaning fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used. Along with maximizing this sustainable practice already in use, the Department urges “alignment of sustainability across the supply chain” and conservation of biodiversity as the agricultural sector works to meet the economic and environmental goals of Food Harvest 2020.

Even with these robust agricultural programs in place, and the tradition of farming continuing into Ireland’s future, some farmers are looking to diversify their income streams. Afforestation–planting and growing trees on land previously cleared for other uses–is one way for farmers to increase revenues. Forest establishment is 100 per cent “grant aided” by the Forest Service in Ireland, according to Forest Enterprises, Ltd. Currently, 11 per cent of Ireland is used for forestry. Government agencies propose afforestation at a rate of 15,000 ha annually. Not only would this increase in trees allow farmers to make more money, but would significantly increase rural employment. Harvested trees would be used for wood products and for wood energy.

One of Ireland’s environmental issues is the conservation of its unique wetlands, bogs. Conservation of bogs has, to date run at cross-purposes with afforestation efforts. Because wetlands everywhere–until very recently–were thought of as wastelands, swamps to be dammed or filled for other purposes, trees have filled in some of Ireland’s crucial blanket bogs.

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Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Scientists, in the last 20 to 30 years, have begun to understand that wetlands provide important ecosystems services. Ireland’s bogs, according to the Ireland Peatland Conservation Council, store millions of tonnes of C02. They also control river catchment and hydrology and provide habitat for key species. Conservation efforts to keep bogs intact are an integral part of Ireland’s overall environmental protection scheme.

Ireland is a beautifully green place, with encouraging environmental protections in place.