A Four Note Hoot: Spotted Owl Surveys under a Mt. Adams Moon

CaliforniaSpottedOwl_FlickrCommons_IlyaKatsnelson_BYFor years our Memorial Day weekend has been a halcyon outdoor adventure to explore mostly unknown wild places in Oregon and Washington.  A week ago, our trip had to be delayed due to The Blind Princess musical being scheduled during the holiday and due to an unexpected invitation to conduct spotted owl surveys for the US Forest Service.   The thread between the two events was not lost on me: a play about turning blindness into sight, versus also attempting against all odds to hear a local extinct owl echo our Mp3 player series of calls.  Regarding the surveys, I wonder what nearby campers were thinking when exposed to the strange recordings at one in the morning!

Spotted owls have been studied since the 1960’s, and miraculously, the species became federally threatened in 1990 just one month after starting my Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife career.  As the local Habitat Biologist tasked with determining suitable spotted owl habitat, I was immediately thrust into a boiling cauldron of environmental controversy.  The shy bird became the savior symbol of bio-diverse old-growth forests while conversely as the ruination scapegoat of the timber industry.  The spotted owl may still be the only bird to ever grace the cover of Time Magazine.

In the early 1990’s when spotted owl surveys preceded nearly all timber sales on the Mt. Adams Ranger District in south-central Washington, dozens of pairs were discovered through the same call and response system used today.  A positive call prompted the next phase of trying to locate whether the owls were nesting.  It was time to bring the lab mice into the woods.  Believe it or not a sacrificial rodent was placed on a branch and the owls would swoop down and either eat their dinner on a nearby tree or tote the mouse to the nest site to be consumed by their owlets.

Ten years ago, owl surveyors returned to the White Salmon basin and instead of locating plentiful numbers, they only detected one bird.   So far, our work has not revealed any spotted owls.

If there is a place and time for any unpredictable occurrences to arise, it would be in the middle of the night, in the deep forest, and definitely under a full moon.  So we continue our surveys with that hope, that dream, because a landscape without night denizens is far too quiet and lonely for me. ~

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Migration

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We are just beginning to see birds return to the Columbia Gorge from their southern paradises.  At its most basic, migration is the movement of a group of animals from one place to another and, in most cases, back again. Most migration is seasonal when birds return here in the spring and leave in the fall.

While we are most familiar with avian migration, land and sea mammals can roam hundreds of miles, tiny monarch butterflies flitter thousands of miles, spotted frogs hop to ponds to lay eggs, snakes slither to communal den sites in the autumn season, and even jellyfish larvae undertake a journey.

Many animals migrate to avoid harsh winter conditions or to follow available food as the seasons change. Migration can have another important benefit. By allowing animals to escape from habitats where parasites have accumulated and by weeding out infected individuals that are not able to survive the journey, migration can reduce parasite infection in animal populations.

When human-provided food resources allow some animals to forego migration and form resident populations, the consequences can be dire. For one thing, by the time migrants return, resident individuals may already be taking up breeding territories and resources, putting the migrants at a competitive disadvantage. And many of those resident animals the migrants encounter may be infected by parasites.

Placing barriers to species on the move becomes seriously problematic.  Dams, barb-wire fences, Border Walls, highways, clearcut logging, and polar waters without ice all unnecessarily prevent animals from reaching their destinations.

The dams result in less fish and a sea lion smorgasbord.  Barb-wire fences prevent bison, antelope, and elk from finding home.  Highways create deadly hazards for wildlife and people.  Clearcuts reduce wildlife diversity and make it kind of hard for tree-nesting species.  Ice-free waters bring starving polar bears into northern towns. And a Border Wall would bring additional misery and challenges to desperate migrants.

Migration occurs in the animal realm because resources on Earth fluctuate and the benefits of long distant travel outweigh their costs.  Migration occurs in the human realm because politics and power fluctuate and the benefits of long distance travel outweigh their costs.  Migration will only work for all if greater commitment is shown to eliminating all forms of exploitation and discrimination that migrants experience and to ensuring that their fundamental human rights are upheld. ~

 

Youth on the Move

The children of the United States have taken up the cause of Anti-Gun Violence and it seems for the first time we are seeing change.  New organizations such as “Youth Again Gun Violence” are attracting young people not only in the cities but in the gun-toting West.

The same is true regarding environmental conservation: There is a refreshing wave of youth activism. University students, teenagers, and children are appearing on world stages, suing governments, affecting policy, using new tools, and making a difference. The conservation and restoration world is waking up to the power of young environmental activists. The most recent IUCN World Conservation Congress dedicated much of its programming to “Youth Voices” and “Next Generations.” The theme of the UN’s 2017 World Wildlife Day was “Listen to the young voices.”

Are we listening? Are we seeking the involvement of young leaders in our work? If not, we’d better start.

With their passion, drive, creativity, and ability to capture audiences we may sometimes find hard to reach, young environmental activists bring a lot to the table.

Let us highlight a few young environmental activists in the U.S. who are taking action at distinctly different scales.

Seventeen-year-old indigenous climate activist  Xiuhtezcatl Martinez from Colorado first spoke out on behalf of the environment at the age of six. By age 12, he was addressing audiences at the Rio+20 United Nations Summit. By 15, the U.N. General Assembly. Today he continues to inspire worldwide audiences, but his voice has extended far beyond speeches. An author, hip-hop artist, and youth director of the global non-profit organization Earth Guardians, he is at the forefront of an environmental movement that is mobilizing young people around the globe.

Evan Maminski, Destiny Watford & Charles Graham and members of their youth-led organization Free Your Voice prevented the nation’s largest trash incinerator from being built less than a mile from their high school. They are continuing to fight for environmental justice in their neighborhood, and the world is taking notice. Last year, they were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize.

When nature-loving, nine-year-old Robbie Bond heard that President Trump signed an Executive Order calling for the review of 27 National Monuments designated under the Antiquities Act of 1906, he founded Kids Speak for Parks and embarked on a journey to visit all 27 sites and review them for himself. In sharing the wonder he discovers at each site through social media he aims to build an army of kids who will speak out to protect parks.

Locally in the Columbia Gorge, the Hood River Ecology Club is a group of high school students determined to make their school and the Columbia River Gorge more sustainable and environmentally aware. One of many noteworthy projects was building two compost kiosks to reduce the amount of waste Hood River Valley High School produces yearly.

Youth are leading the way.  They deserve our support and thanks!

 

The Place Where Air is Born

“And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair”
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

We take air for granted.  Unless we are inflicted with respiratory challenges or live in a place where the air smells like snakes, we breathe in and exhale without effort or thought.  Where the air is perfumed with scent and blossoms, we breathe deeply.  We also may pause to appreciate the utter freshness of brand new air at its source…the ocean.

While air in the eastern states is sticky humid and in the desert west oven dry, air brought in from ocean waves invites us to recognize the pureness of our breath in order to maximize health and a sense of well being.

While I’d like to believe the ocean air is concocted by Thor or cloud nymphs with  wands, it is our invaluable source of life, El Sol, that creates the wind. Uneven heating of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere causes hot air in some areas, and cooler air elsewhere. This difference in temperature and pressure causes wind.

And what atoms comprise the wind? There’s oxygen from ocean plants in every breath we take. Most of this oxygen comes from the sea garden of tiny ocean plants – called phytoplankton – that live near the water’s surface and drift with the currents. Like all green plants, they photosynthesize – magically using sunlight and carbon dioxide to make food. A byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen.  This is the perfect relationship: our need for oxygen, green plants requiring our carbon dioxide. Breathing in, breathing out. ~

An Inextinguishable Hope

Welcome to 2018.  While many would like to say good riddance to a year of sewer-politics, deadly fires, last winter bone-chilling weather, and the all too many divisions that rip at our families and communities, we know there were other accomplishments and miracles to celebrate:

  1.  Hajar: The odds had been been stacked against Hajar, a lion cub born just hours after her mother Dana, rescued from a defunct zoo in a war-torn Syria, was released into a wildlife reserve in Jordan. Dana and 12 other animals had barely survived under harsh conditions in the Syrian city of Aleppo, a major battleground.  They were transported from Syria to Turkey and then to Jordan by the international animal charity Four Paws.
  2.   The Columbia Gorge Fire: 48,000 acres, days of breathing acrid smoke, Cascade Locks evacuations….and hundreds of logs to be placed into streams for fish habitat, new seedlings already thriving in the core of the fire Eagle Creek, and historic Multnomah Falls Lodge, fully intact and open for business.  Opportunities to explore new trails on both sides of the Columbia River.  A new beginning for stewardship.
  3. The People Have Spoken!:  In the heart of red-state Broadhurst, Georgia, the Wayne County commissioners were unaccustomed to a big audience. Over the previous weeks, the local newspaper had uncovered plans by an out-of-town waste hauler to expand a rail line leading to the community’s landfill. County residents were becoming increasingly concerned with each story. This new rail spur would enable the company—later found to be Republic Services, a $9-billion firm based in Phoenix whose biggest shareholder is Microsoft’s Bill Gates—to haul 10,000 tons of toxic coal ash through the county’s swampy forest lands and into the dump every day. Some 15 months later, to the great surprise of the anti-coal ash coalition, the community’s campaign paid off. In April, Republic abruptly announced in an email that it was withdrawing its applications for permits that would allow it to haul coal ash into Broadhurst!
  4. Starfish Comeback: Baby starfish are making a comeback in Oregon and California just two years after disease nearly wiped out the small but integral sea creature, scientists reported five days ago. 

    Starfish, also known as sea stars, are crucial predators that eat mussels and barnacles, keeping their populations under control, scientists said. Studies have shown large populations of mussels will crowd an area, leaving no room for algae or small invertebrates.

    Officials are hopeful the increase in babies will mean a resurgence of the starfish population. A new study by Oregon State University scientists showed an increase of purple ochre starfish babies that was 300 times the normal rate.

    May your hopes never falter, never flicker out.  Happy New Year!  Happy New Hope!

Fore Bear-ance

For years in the forested wild lands of northern Washington, a few Methow Valley landowners held a secret…wolves had returned to the Pacific Northwest and they were living on their property.  In 2008, the word was out. Wolf presence was big news in Okanogan County, especially when the Forest Service suddenly informed a rancher that he could not turn his cattle onto Libby Creek, where he’d held a decade-old permit to graze on public land, due to potential impacts to wolf dens.  Later in 2008, several Methow wolves were killed by ranchers.

Protection of wolves by some private landowners and persecution of wolves by some ranchers again focuses on the vital need for community input and dialogue regarding natural resource issues. Could the denial of the rancher’s permit have been handled in a different way? If the Methow ranchers had been approached by the government when wolves were confirmed in the area, might that outreach have prevented the wolf killings?

As the wolf management debate rages on in both Washington and Oregon, the inevitably of grizzly bears also moving in from Canada should give the government and private landowners a heads up to get out in front of the great bear’s return.

In Montana, there is a group of private landowners who have banded together to make sure both bears and cows can co-exist on private ranching lands in the Tom Miner Basin of Montana, just outside of Yellowstone National Park. The 30-square-mile basin is home to not only a wolf pack, but also the densest populations of grizzly bears in the Lower 48. Thirty to forty adult bears live in the aspen-fringed draws and fir-studded peaks that weave through the Tom Miner Basin, and the area has become a model for what conservationists call “predator coexistence”: the art of sharing the landscape with bears and wolves.

Malou Anderson-Ramirez, a Montana rancher running 300 beef cattle, started the basin’s range riding program with her sister-in-law Hilary Zaranek-Anderson. They started hiring a few riders every summer to patrol the area’s herds. “The objective is very simple,” Anderson-Ramirez says. “You go out and check cattle.” Today, both women manage the program with the goal of minimizing livestock kills, but also helping ranchers stay more attuned to the health of their animals by relaying back information about the herd.

Ensuring the rare wildlife species survive into the future will involve private land and private landowners, and the lessons of the Methow and Montana can be instrumental in bringing all voices into the conversation to find ways to benefit for both wild and domestic animals. ~

 

Hygge

As temperatures drop, warming fires lit, and season festivities come to pass, there is a perfect Norwegian word and concept that just may sum up this special time of year: hygge, which can be translated roughly to coziness, but has much more to do with an overall sense of well being, good friends and often a sense of —community.  Like the white light of a bonfire on a snowy night, hygge (pronounced hoo-guh) is an earthly-yet-elegant  lifestyle that brightens up a time of year when darkness prevails.  In the months so characterized by their darkness and their chill, the Scandinavian idea of hygge is particularly appealing.  Hygge is as Danish as roast pork and in many ways is the essence that lights up the Danish soul.  It first appeared in Danish writing in the 18th. century and has been embraced by the Danes ever since!  Hygge is also catching on in Britain, where it was the most searched for word last year after…Brexit!  Now it is America’s turn to learn about hygge.  Everyone from the The New York Times and The New Yorker has covered it and no fewer than eight books have been published in the last few months about the topic.  It is trending on social media too.

Trine Hahnemann, the author of Scandinavian Comfort Food: Embracing the Art of Hygge writes, “I think hygge’s all about slowing down.  Hygge is about the little breaks and moments where you kind of breath out.  It’s all the little pauses during the day where you just sit down and feel good about the precious things of life.”

Hygge can be practiced anywhere and anytime.  Create space and time to do nothing but enjoy the little things with family and friends and you’re on your way to a hygge home!

In the end, hygge is more than a cozy room full of candles, company and good food. Hygge is a philosophy; a way of life that is helping us all understand the importance of simplicity, time to unwind and slowing down the pace of life. ~

 

Gratitude Day

 

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
Melody Beattie

The Eagle Creek Fire: Renewal not Ruin

At the risk of receiving additional “I don’t need to hear any good news about fire,” Facebook messages seen during the height of the Eagle Creek fire, “I have patiently waited until the smoke has cleared to add an even stronger scientific zing supporting the role of fire and announcing confidently that the Eagle Creek Fire was good, pretty much all good.

While the temporary loss of recreational trails and green forest aesthetics are now part of our Gorge experience, the main fact is that the recent fires have not ruined the Gorge but instead, once again, renewed it.

Just as winter gives the natural world a much needed break for a season, how nice to give wildlife a break from the ever increasing numbers of folks recreating in the Gorge.  And an opportunity for recreation planners to potentially change currentplacements of popular trails to better protect riparian areas and other ecologically sensitive sites.

For a typical fire a third of the affected timber will be scorched trees, a third will be trees whose future is uncertain and a third will look unscathed.  “Easily two-thirds or more of the Gorge fire is really good ecological fire,” Professor John Bailey said when he was on the ground. “And that’s why the fire does some of the fuel management for us.”As he flew over the Gorge, Oregon State University Professor John Bailey was analytical about the Eagle Creek burn. “Fire is a healthy, natural part of a forest ecosystem,” the OSU faculty member said. A century’s worth of suppressing wildfire in the United States has created conditions, especially in the West, that will ensure longer fire seasons because of longer, drier and hotter summers. Those conditions point to the need for “actively managed” forests, Bailey noted, which could include more deliberately set and managed prescribed fires.

It’s been 115 years since the Yacolt Burn, and the area affected is now a rain forest like every other rain forest in the Pacific Northwest, with only minor signs there was a catastrophic fire there in the relatively recent past. It re-grew from the ashes.

And ash is nature’s fertilizer.  Plant blight, disease and insects are reduced or eliminated by burns.  Mineral soil is the compost that Douglas fir seedling roots need to grow. “Dead trees” or snags are full of life.  Our local woodpeckers are surely ecstatic after the Gorge fire!

Meg Krawchuk, assistant professor at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, says fire is a necessity in forest ecosystems. “We’re actually in a bit of a fire deficit when we think about this over the longer historical period,” she says.

Life will return to burned areas in short order. Fungi are already crawling around in the ashes of the fire, laying the foundation for soil that will support the plants that will constitute the early stage of the forest’s re-growth—a time when heat from the fire and sunlight newly reaching the ground in the absence of a canopy encourages a new crop of plants to firm up the soil structure that will allow gigantic trees to thrive.

Some of the plants we’ll see in the seral stage of the Gorge re-growth have a striking beauty. Fireweed, a fast-spreading flying seeder that often sets the stage for post-fire re-growth, produces pyramids of striking pinkish purple flowers. Wild blueberries and huckleberries devour the acidic soils of post-fire environments, and they’ll start to appear en masse.

This is what forests do.

The Gorge is already blooming, transmuted by fire, growing into a beautiful new thing in itself, becoming the next beautiful thing it will be for our children.” Corbin Smith ~

Sharing the Trail with Praying Mantises

Most of us look forward to seasonal natural events such as the first appearance of robins, the return of the San Juan Capistrano swallows, a summer’s swim, and currently, the arrival of  autumn rain.  For the past five years during a brief sliver of summer, praying mantises have magically shown up on the trail separating our home and the top of the hill where we park our cars.  Why these 2- 3 inch long insects hang out in the open on hardpan soil is unknown, yet I walk at a snail’s pace hoping not to step on them because they blend in PERFECTLY to the sienna grass.

Mantises are mostly ambush predators, but a few ground-dwelling species are found actively pursuing their prey. They normally live for only a year. Here in the cooler Pacific Northwest climates, the adults lay eggs in autumn, then die. The eggs are protected by their hard capsules and hatch in the spring.

Imagine my horror last weekend when I came upon a dead mantis on the path, being devoured by a yellow jacket wasp.  I am only lucky to see a few of the prayerful insects every year, and I was saddened to think the mantis season was over…until yesterday when I spied one along the trail and I guess what goes around comes around, for it grasped a dead yellow jacket in its mitts.  If there ever was an insect that glares at you it is the mantis.  With their googly, non-blinking eyes, they don’t seem to tire during a stare down.
Mantises were considered to have supernatural powers by early civilizations, including Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt and Assyria, who revered them as Gods.  Mantis powers include rotating their head 180 degrees, turning black after a fire to blend into the charred landscape, being able to detect bat sonar to protect themselves, and of course, the female mantis beheading the males after procreation!