Saturday, February 28, 2015

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Continuing Climate Change Snow Job by Senator Inhofe

By Bob Ferris

There has always been a lingering question in my mind as to whether Senator James Inhofe was just intellectually impaired or monumentally disingenuous.  After watching the below snow ball bit I am not sure that I even care anymore, because this is clear evidence (once again) that he has absolutely no business serving in a legislative body that necessarily needs to represent the best of our county rather than our worst.

How can we possibly hold our heads high as a scientist or engaged citizen--let alone be considered world leaders--when someone in a position of power within the highest halls of our government treats established science like it is a joke and people with much higher credentials than his with so little respect?

The snowball stunt was ever so droll, but there are folks in the Pacific Northwest who are looking at bare mountains where they should see snow for exactly the same reason Senator Inhofe was able to make that snowball; very much like the mocking little igloo the Senator's your family built in 2010 /. These people mentioned above (and I am one) find little humor or even anything remotely senatorial in your antics.

While we are disheartened by Senator Inhofe's sophomoric snowball, we are encouraged that Senator Markey and Congressman Grijalva are going to conduct investigations into the funding sources and lack of proper disclosures by Willie Soon, Robert Balling Jr and others at the core of this fossil fuel industry funded denial conspiracy. My hope is that both of them and others expand these investigations to include other players in the denial circus like Senator Inhofe's former employee Marc Morano now with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT).

Of particular interest are the back and forth payments between CFACT and Donors Trust (see 2011, 2012 and 2013 990s)  as well as Donors Trust role in soliciting other funds for Willie Soon ($64,935 in 2012) and prominent climate skeptic organizations such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute ($1.44 million in 2012 see 990).  It is troubling that the Trust's donors provided more than 33% of CFACTs funding in 2012 including three grants in the half million dollar range.   I think there are important stories that need to be told to the American public as to the origin of these monies and why they were donated to these particular groups.

I am anxious to see some of these question answered because there are many in American like the Alaskan village that are already suffering as result of this phenomenon Senator Inhofe fails or refuses to acknowledge.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Saltbox and Battery

By Bob Ferris

When I was at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vermont from 2006 to 2009 I thought and wrote a lot about energy conservation, alternative energy and integrated power systems in architecture and in daily life.  During this time I was intrigued by everything from super-insulation to compressed-air-powered cars and from building small to micro-hydro systems.  

And light too.  Why did we in the US still design lighting systems to mimic candles when some in Europe were looking at "light walls" an such?  It is amazing how your mind drifts to thoughts of energy efficiency or better ways of doing it when you are writing checks the size of house payments for utilities nine months of the year.

Yestermorrow was a very fun career detour, particularly for someone married to a green architect. And it allowed me to meet some very, very interesting people including the folks from YERT (Your Environmental Road Trip). My piece ended up on the cutting room floor in the compiled YERT movie, but I still keep in touch with Ben, Julie and Mark.  

At some point I became so immersed in this energy stuff that my good friend Gregor Barnum and I along with Jasna and Gaelan Brown also tried to start a "Carbon Shredding" movement (we lived near Sugarbush Ski Resort so shredding worked on several different levels--get it?).  We eventually took our show on the road hitting Bonnaroo after the 24-hour Solar Bus ride from Vermont to Tennessee.  We worked a booth from 8AM to 3AM three days in a row.  It was big-time fun but what the hell were we thinking?

Gregor and I clowning around before getting on The Solar Bus in Vermont.
All of this and more came back to me over the last week or so for two reasons.  The first was Tesla's big announcement about a soon-to-be-premiered whole house battery which to me is a very exciting development indeed.  Maybe it will be too expensive for most, but it is a step.  

And the second happened when my wife and I were shopping for binoculars at REI.  I had cruised over to the camping section and was looking at things like new attachments for the Biolite stove that my wife bought me for my birthday this past year.  I have not used the stove yet but am very intrigued because of the rocket-stove nature of the device and its ability to put a little charge into cellphones and the like via the USB connection once it gets ripping.  

As I was cruising through the options, I was soon joined by a sales person.  We talked a little about the Biolite and then he got a little conspiratorial look on his face and led me over to a new tent that Big Agnes had just started making.  Big Agnes had just released a line of tents with a string of LED lights running along part of the ridge as well as the top of the back wall.  

I do not know whether or not that the LEDs actually provide enough light for reading, but I do know that it has to be better than using a headlamp or flashlight.  The idea that a tent company had looked for a way to incorporate an energy-efficient "light wall" into their tent filled me with a sense of hope. 

I sensed, the late and much missed, Gregor's presence as I looked at this, because this would have been something that I shared with him via e-mail.  I felt too that I might have even heard...Get on the Bus, Come chill with us...We are Carbon Shredders...somewhere in the background of my mental sound track.   

Monday, February 23, 2015

BLM: Caught Between a Rock and a Horse Place

By Bob Ferris

I grew up around horses.  My sister rode and I shoveled.  She eventually rode in the Junior Grand Nationals at the Cow Palace near San Francisco.  The shoveling world had no parallel event.  But more than 40 years later I still remember Easter-Bar, Geronimo and Auber with fondness and respect.  I bear them and their kind no deep-seated shoveling grudge.  I mention this as I attended another Museum of Natural and Cultural History Darwin Days talk this past Thursday and this one was on the topic of wild horses.

Before I launch into this I will say this is a topic that is both complicated and controversial.  This seems at times to be the shadowlands where I exist most of the time swinging the cold sledgehammer of logic towards a wedge set squarely between rationalization and reason.  Even the hardest efforts are often of little benefit—much like those in knotty oak or fibrous eucalyptus—because the former wants so badly to be the latter as no one wants to think that what they revere, love or need causes harm.  This applies to feral horses, feral cats, coyote derbies, suction dredging, mute swans, lead bullets, logging or public lands grazing.  And I have been hip-deep in all of these issues.

Given the above and what I had been led to expect from other similar discussions in other states (see articles above) I was prepared to hear a lively and perhaps contentious debate.   What I heard were three presenters—Scott Beckstead of the Humane Society of the United States, Rob Sharp of the Bureau of Land Management, and Oregon Public Broadcasting's Vince Patton (see OPB piece here and video here)—who knew and cared about the subject matter and who disagreed only around edges, but not in the whole.  I left that presentation conflicted not because there was not the promised clash but because many issues went unaddressed.  

Although I do not dislike horses, I have to admit that my biases lean towards biodiversity preservation rather than animal welfare—particularly when dealing with non-native species in wild places.  In this I recognize the genetic and cultural value of lines like the Kiger Mustangs, but I tend to think of feral animals as feral and not wild.  Moreover these rare isolated strains aside, there are more than 9 million horses in the United States alone so the rationale for maintaining most of these herds in the wild is much more cultural than genetic or because of any ecological benefit.

There is also a question of consistency.  As I have been a big proponent of reducing and sometimes eliminating cattle when they cause damage or displace native species, I am not sure why—from a native biodiversity perspective—that I should feel all that much differently about feral horses than I do about cattle or sheep.  Certainly the horses are more picturesque and I feel better about them than other livestock, but when it comes to fragile rangeland resources in the arid areas of the West the benefit of the doubt—by a wide margin—has to go to native species regardless of the romance or emotions involved.

From NAS Review.
So where are we with this program?  If I were forced to characterize this BLM operation at this point I would say that we are spending about $80 million annually on a program and course of management that if we continue business-as-usual we will only be spending even more money on a worsening situation in the future with scant regard for robust science (see above Figure 2).
“Evidence suggests that horse populations are growing by 15 to 20 percent each year, a level that is unsustainable for maintaining healthy horse populations as well as healthy ecosystems.” In Abstract of Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward
The current circumstance with removing excess, non-adopted equines and placing them on paid private pastures (i.e., treating the symptoms rather than root causes) along with underestimating populations and not properly monitoring the range impacts is a lot like someone with massive credit card debt getting a consolidation loan but continuing past spending patterns and even applying for new credit cards. This may seem like a pretty harsh and cavalier analogy for me to make but it matches closely the conclusions of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review of the program issued in 2013
To require the protection, management, and control of wild free- roaming horses and burros on public lands. From preamble to PL 92-195
"excess animals" means wild free-roaming horses or burros (1) which have been removed from an area by the Secretary pursuant to application law or, (2) which must be removed from an area in order to preserve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship in that area. From PL-92-195
The Secretary shall cause additional excess wild free roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible.  From PL-92-195
(Emphases added
So how exactly do we move forward on this?  My sense is that herd managers and the public of all opinions need to take to heart the recommendations of the NAS review.  Moreover, people need to look again at the The Wild Free-Roaming Horses  and Burros Act of 1971 (Public Law 92-195) which not only urges the Secretary of the Interior to heed the NAS, but also clearly communicates that the Secretary needs to insure that horse and burro populations do not cause ecological degradation or compromise the multiple-use directives of these lands (see excerpts above).  And all must remember that the Secretary is authorized under this law to take actions to protect, manage, and control wild free-roaming horses and burros on these public lands including the humane destruction of animals that are judged under this process to be excess and where no demand for adoption exists. The Act is fairly simple and straight-forward, but there are problems.
BLM Mission Statement: It is the mission of the Bureau of Land Management to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.
The first set of problems deals with the general and historic weakness of the BLM to properly establish robust monitoring procedures and subsequently enforcing those standards (see HCN article). They have not done this well with cattle or sheep and are continuing that trend for horses and burros. Moreover there is the conundrum of trying to set ecological standards simultaneously for livestock leases, horses or burros, and wildlife all using the same space.  How exactly does one do that? Even if the grazing “pie” was split equally in three parts how does one administrate this fairly and point to the time when one element has had their fill so to speak.  I suspect that this task in not impossible, but it will take some real effort.
“If population density were to increase to the point that there was not enough forage available, it could result in fewer pregnancies and lower young-to-female ratios and survival rates.” NAS Review
Once the above performance standards are established and tested, there is the conflicting direction implied by the NAS comments above about letting nature-take-its-course in terms of habitat degradation depressing the reproductive rate in horses and burros.  This gets problematic when you are dealing with multiple-use as part of the vegetation needs to be reserved for wildlife and, under current law, livestock.   How exactly do you starve one group using grasslands without starving the other two users?

The idea of natural regulation also brings up the whole issue of whether or not the horses are “wild” or feral in the first place.  And yes I have seen the “evidence” of the Carlsbad, California horses and burro —carbon dated to somewhere between 1625-1705. And I do understand that this predates the settlement of the mission system in Alta California in 1769.  My sense is that it is a lot more likely that these animals came from Spanish herds that hit North American in 1540 or soon thereafter than these critters being part of a horse and burro population that survived for nearly 10,000 years without anyone noticing it—not in native languages or in the fossil record.
“Mountain lions require habitats different from those favored by horses, and the committee was unable to find examples of wolf predation on free-ranging horses in the United States.” NAS Review
A further fact to consider in this wild versus feral debate comes from a question that my wife keeps asking me: Why not wolves or cougars as a solution?  The NAS nailed it in their response but this is a more important point than it seems.  The proper question may not be why not wolves, cougars or even bears but rather: If these are wild or native species, where are the co-evolved predator systems associated with horses and burros?  There are really not any and have not been any for about 10,000 years when we lost a number of rather large and pretty horrific cats.

A reconstruction of the American Lion (Panthera leo atrox) thought to have preyed on prehistoric horses in North America.
I mention the above not because I want to diminish those who love horses or support their preservation—even at all costs—but the ecological status of these animals as well as the condition and diversity of their collective gene pools in all of North America need to be material factors that influence future management regimes.  Decisions, strategies and acceptable risks are obviously different for these horses and burros than they would be for black-footed ferrets or other imperiled species with extremely limited gene pools.

We need at this juncture to circle back to the talk in Eugene where we saw some points of agreement. The first was that the current situation was not workable nor was it sustainable.  The second point of agreement that I heard was that solutions—like birth control via PZP or other agents—that happened on the range were most preferable.  These seem to make sense.

It is also instructive here to revisit the credit card and loan analogy.  BLM—in cooperation with independent scientists—has to step up like a credit counselor to develop a defensible method for determining and then monitoring what is essentially an ecological budget for the Herd Management Areas (HMAs).  These strategies for maintaining the horse and burro populations well below some sort of collective, multi-use carrying capacity for the range should also provide adequate margins to deal with the projected impacts of climate change and the droughts that are here now or that loom on the horizon.

Once the above budgets are set for units or blocks of cooperatively managed units (HMAs), then two things have to happen in regards to the long-term storage of horses.  The first is that the flow from HMAs to the long-term pastures has to stop.  Period.  In other words the steely-eyed credit counselor played by the BLM has to draw a line in the sand regarding no new “debt.”  But before there is wide-spread panic and fear of lawsuits, one thing has to be remembered: BLM is most often sued where they have ignored their own laws or regulations or where they have not entered into a visible process to make a decision.   It may seem obvious that the best way to avoid suits is to behave lawfully and not make decisions arbitrarily, but that is evidently lost on some.

Mustangs in Arizona by John Harwood
Now I really do not know what should happen to the animals not adopted.  Under the law, they could be humanely destroyed.  I am not advocating or dismissing that nor am I standing here—plate in hand—in anticipation of equine steaks becoming part of the menu again.  But one thing that I do know is that the existence of this unsustainable option makes it way too easy for the BLM to shirk their responsibilities under the 1971 law.  In addition, this option enables those driven by animal welfare or animal rights to think that pressuring the BLM to maintain in perpetuity these animals is an ethical alternative to developing creative solutions or some sort of acceptable compromise.

The second part of the long-term storage situation is that material steps need to be taken to reduce these herds in captivity.  I am not sure what the trajectory of the reduction has to be but at some point the American public is going to catch on to the fact that $80 million is being spent or roughly $2000 per year per animal in the wild.  This is nearly twice what the horse in the OPB video brought at auction.  I do not have trouble with the government spending money on wildlife or wild places and I do support the presence of these animals in areas where their populations are legitimately and adaptively managed.  But I would much rather see these monies spent in a manner that leads to a sustainable condition than on that which serves no real public good and that makes the situation even worse.

I understand, as I stated in the beginning, that this is a controversial but important topic.  My hope is that once folks get past the vitriolic stage of response that they start offering up creative solutions for this conundrum that will help to get us out of this "rock and a horse place."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Where Wolves and Coyotes Are Concerned Be Careful of Your Wishes Three

By Bob Ferris

I grew up hearing various versions of the three wishes fable—some not suitable for all audiences.  In these tales the magical figure nearly always left the wisher sadder but wiser with the last wish or before.  The same is true when you go messing with natural systems: You may think that your wished for action will yield one result, but then you find that you have not fully considered all the factors or ramifications.

Along these lines when I hear ranchers complain too loudly about coyotes, I sometimes offer up that the coyote—a smaller, more reproductively responsive canid—is what ranchers and others earned as karmic payback for blindly wiping out the wolf.  There is some tongue and cheek in this, but a “three wishes” core truth also.

Am I saying the above to denigrate coyotes?  No, because we have seen that culling coyotes can lead to increases in rabbits and rodents that impact ranchers in other and possibly worse ways.  So what am I saying? It is not so much what I am saying, but rather what I am trying to do and that is open up dialogues about the complexity and interconnectedness of ecological systems.

Seeking and engaging in these dialogues is a worthwhile exercise, but it is an uphill climb as well.  I find these ecological interrelationships and interactions compellingly fascinating—like reading a mystery or thriller that one cannot put down—but I fully understand that others do not see it similarly.  Yet, if you are one who either is taking a position on lethal control or just trying to figure out these dynamics, it is really in your best interest to take a little time to understand that these relationships are frequently not all that straight-forward.

A good illustration of the complexity of “three wishing” predators gone or reduced comes from "wolf culling."   Culling is the random killing of wolves through actions like hunting and trapping rather than by controlling or targeting offending animals.  There have been a range of results from these actions that tend to reduce numbers rather problems, with many of them seemingly counter-intuitive.

My sense from watching this for more than 20 years is that a lot of the confusing results have to do with pack size and dynamics.  Wolf packs tend to function a little like a “super-organism”  with restricted breeding and shared care of the pack’s young as part of the collective package.  Under this system, larger packs would then tend to reproduce less per wolf than smaller packs where the ratios are higher.  Thinking of it as a wolf-to-coyote spectrum is helpful in this regard with larger packs functioning more like classic wolves and smaller packs reproducing more along the lines of coyotes.

But there is more.  Observations in the US  and Canada  have also found that smaller packs tend to have to kill more prey per individual wolf because they are less able to protect their kills from other predators or scavengers like ravens.  Larger packs can protect and therefore consume more of the prey they have taken.

And larger packs are able to defend larger territories.  This factor along with the other two likely means that a certain region with fewer but larger packs could have lower overall per capita predation and reproduction rates.  Stated differently the ecological implications of 50 wolves in five packs will be different than 50 wolves in 10 packs.

We are now seeing reports out of Idaho that their wolf hunting and control actions (culling) have produced smaller packs.  There seems to be some elation over this.  My sense in consideration of the above is that this is probably not exactly what they wished.  But it is likely what you get when wildlife policies are driven by folks with a GI-Joe Kung Fu grip on old and discounted ideas about predator-prey relationships. They have clearly not learned the lesson of the three wishes.

For more GREEN DREAMS wolf pieces visit here

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Video Valentine to Our Friends in Vermont

By Bob Ferris (with a little help from Carlene)

Carlene getting ready to drill some trees.
When Carlene and I lived in Vermont one of our favorite times of year was sugaring season.  We tapped trees and watched the sap flow until we filled the big pot and started to boil the watery elixir.

Tapping the trees and hanging buckets.

We worked for days boiling and then boiling some more.  The 40:1 mantra became our watchwords and challenge.  And we never lost a batch to burning after the first one.  Is it aproning yet ? Now? Now?  What about now?

Pretty much done.

We ran to hunt for wood for the fires coming back to the pot as one to a child left alone and untended too long.  And then adding more sap as the water was boiled off in the crisp air.

It was a celebration of sorts not only for the syrup it produced, but of what the thawing and freezing weather portended—not the muddy season but the one that comes after.  That 50 second spring that flashes into a three minute summer.

We still have our buckets and taps as well as the big blackened pot that I have never quite been able to clean.  And I am sure somewhere in our chests of flannel-lined pants and long underwear that we have some clothes still smelling of sugaring wood smoke.

We post this in remembrance of those happy days of harvest and toil as well as the sweet products of success—all long gone.  And we post this too in hopefulness that our thoughts of the thaw and our collective good wishes will bring our Vermont friends warmth in heart if not in weather.

Captain Jack, Lost Lakes and Dreams that Flew Away

By Bob Ferris

Kintpuash about the time he came
to the Klamath Reservation (1864)
Long before Johnny Depp channeled his best Keith Richards to play Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, America knew another Captain Jack—a Modoc warrior by the name of Kintpuash or Strikes-the-Water-Brashly.

Tule Lake and Lost River areas.  The
Klamath Reservation and Fort Klamath are
just north of  Upper Klamath Lake.
Kintpuash was famous as the chief who twice led a band of Modoc Indians off the Klamath reservation in southern Oregon—first to the Lost River country and later to Tule Lake (see map).  Kintpuash eventually gained his real fame when he shot the leader of a peace commission, General Edward Canby, because Jack had been led to believe that killing Canby would bring an end to the so-called Modoc War of 1872-1873.  It did, but not until Kintpuash and three other Modoc warriors surrendered and were put to death at Fort Klamath.

Captain Jack in 1873.  
I feel connected to all of this on numerous levels.  First, more than 20 years ago right after I had left my PhD program at UC Santa Cruz and before I made the migration to Washington, DC in late 1991, I dragged my sister Mary and her husband Rob to Fort Klamath to look at purchasing and running a fly fishing resort across the street from where Captain Jack, Black Jim, John Schonchin and Boston Charley were hanged.  We dug deeply into the story of Captain Jack at that time.

Rob and I hiked the property, checked out the cabins, dining hall and owner housing while Mary graciously tolerated our exuberance.  Rob and I eventually hiked to the cold water spring that was the source of Fort Creek and while we were there looking at the gin-clear water surging out of the rocky hillside we saw a western tanager.  On the walk back to the developed area of the property between the sound of slaps—the mosquitoes were really vicious—we determined that the new venture would be named Tanager Springs.  And the dream was labeled forever more.

Western tanager by Naturespicturesonline.
It was a dream that was soon abandoned in the light of day as we looked at the numbers, thought about the work involved, and considered the fact that my sister was expecting her third child some few months down the road.  The Tanager Springs dream was dead long before considering the pregnancy and distance to medical facilities, but it is probably easier to anchor to that concept than to accept that the idea was illogical and not well-founded in the first place.

I also feel connected to this incident because my great-grandmother was a Canby just like the General and we all share a common ancestor in Thomas Canby of Pennsylvania who was born in England and married in Philadelphia in the 1690s.  Though in this affair, for many reasons, I feel much more connected to Captain Jack than I do for my distant and much removed cousin.  

If you enlarge the picture and look closely
Mt. Shasta is in the middle of the notch.
As I walked around Captain Jack’s Stronghold with Carlene this past weekend (actually on Valentine’s Day, as I am a true romantic) much of the above and more came back to me.  Visiting the site and seeing the natural and some of the man-made defenses one can see why this was such a perfect fortress at the time.  You get how 60 warriors facing 1000 US soldiers could have killed 35 men in blue while not sustaining a single loss.

Striking too in all of this is understanding that this position was once on the shores of Tule Lake at a time when this body of water was 100,000 acres in size—roughly 156 square miles.  That is until we drained the lake of its water and ultimately its wild nature to forward the cause of agriculture.  I thought about this idea of wildness while standing in what clearly served as a trench works for the Modoc warriors and spying on Mount Shasta in the distance though a stone notch.  I was set upon here by sad metaphors of lost wildness.  Captain Jack’s post surrender haircut and Anglo clothes; Tule Lake’s ecological lobotomy; and my lost Tanager Springs dream (worthless or not) all intersected in the shadow of that iconic peak and the former shores of that lost lake.

Carlene and I drove through Fort Klamath on our way back to Eugene and stopped on the road
Carlene walking up to shrine at
Captain Jack's Stronghold.
between the Fort and the property that was for sale what seemed like a lifetime ago.  The historic fort was in the winter plumage that comes to parks in the off season—somewhat forlorn, unkempt and small.  And “Tanager Springs” was for intents and purposes dead with dining hall roof sagging and near collapse, a crudely painted closed sign propped against the saw horses blocking the access road, and the only sign of life being a tendril of smoke from a chimney in the lone cabin that seemed even remotely habitable.

Standing in front of Tanager Springs
more than 20 years later.
Certainly there is deep and penetrating sadness here, but it is in this loss or sense of loss that we understand the importance of fighting for wildness where we can. These feelings have to motivate us rather than paralyze us.  There is bravery here as well as rebellion and unrealistic expectations too that we must hold dear and carry with us as we wage our own battles to hold onto wildness within and around us.

No One Knows the Marshes I've Known

By Bob Ferris

Some of the snow geese at Miller Island.
I am not sure when I visited my first marsh or how many I have seen, but each I experience seems so new and special.  That is why it was so wonderful that Carlene and I decided to pick up sticks this past weekend to travel down to Klamath Falls and be part of the Winter Wings Festival  put on by the Klamath Basin Audubon chapter.  It was sort of our Valentine’s Day gift to each other and well worth the effort.

This festival has been running for more than 30 years but it was our first time and so we did some things really right and honestly missed the boat on a few.  Hopefully, we and others can profit from our triumphs as well as our challenges.  But first let me say that overall it was a great experience and I say that even in light of lowered bird numbers due to warm weather and any shortcomings I might identify.  So here goes.

We drove down from Eugene on Friday rather than Thursday because we found out that the early bird does in fact get the worm and the workshops and field trips fill up fast so our first advice is to register early online.  Everyone we talked to felt the workshops and field trips enhanced the experience.  So remember the proverbial worm with this one.

Since we hit town in the afternoon we wanted to go somewhere close-in and decided to sample the Miller Island Wildlife Refuge managed by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).  It was a good choice and we saw a great array of waterfowl dominated by the presence of snow geese.   It was also a great opportunity for us as novices to get confused by the color morphs and various species of mid-sized geese that appear in this corner of the world.  The above video by Carlene gives you a flavor of the energy of the place when the vocalizations come to a crescendo and the various groups take flight.  It was stunning.

From a conservation perspective our observations were bittersweet however as I had been in DC when the good news-bad news story about the snow goose began to break in the 1990s.  It is hard not to be impressed by what we saw here and elsewhere on the federal refuges, but the implications and complications were always in the back of my mind.  Life continues to be complex and interconnected.

Carlene demonstrating the need for a camp chair at a blind.
For those wanting to visit Miller Island  you should remember to get an ODFW parking pass ($22) as they are required for this area.  It is also a good idea with this site and others to have a good pair of binoculars, a spotting scope for capturing greater detail and some sort of camp chair as there are viewing blinds here and elsewhere that are set up expressly for the long wait required for the birds to return after being disturbed during the walk out to the blind.

We got up before sunrise on Valentine’s Day.  Here we were caught between the vagaries of a rotating earth and the limitations of an included breakfast that starts at 6:00 AM.  We could have been more hard core and kept "duck hunter" hours, but were little penalized because the pea soup fog likely dampened and extended some of the morning activity.  On this second day we headed south to the Oregon and California borderlands and the complex of federal refuges in this locale.

Properly characterized I would say this was a waterfowl and raptors trip.  Through the rolling mists and rising sun we saw assortments of ducks from buffleheads and ruddy ducks to pin-tails and canvas backs as well as an assortment of geese and swans.  We also saw red-tails, northern harriers and bald eagles and even viewed one field where every wooden fence post along one side seemed to provide a roost for some raptor.

Our earliest driving was in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and then we traversed to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge where we managed to pick up a tick, so be careful if you walk through brush to get that better angle.  From the two Klamath refuges we traveled to the Tule Lake Refuge and hit there a little before 9 AM.

As the fog was still holding strong we walked into Discovery Marsh across the street from the
Carlene on the path to observation structure in the background.
Visitor’s Center.  The above video was shot there and demonstrates some of the magic of these places, particularly in the early morning.

When the sun finally broke through and after we toured the displays at the Center we hiked the steep wall behind the building to a cliff-side observation platform--essentially a tiny rock house.  Here we got an aerial view of what we had felt like was an immense marsh.  It really showed the importance of these restored marshes carved out of farmland and it sort of reminded me of the park  that was described in “The Mouse That Roared” that was little more than trails that traversed back and forth in parallel to give the illusion of size.

The view of Discovery Marsh from the observation blind. 
For the rest of the day we traveled down the edge of Tule Lake eventually lunching at Captain Jack’s Stronghold (more on this later).

Most of this leg would have been one of the areas where stools and spotting scopes could have helped.

We closed the day at the Oregon Institute of Technology where we enjoyed a fine meal with other birders and heard excellent talks by Mike Sutton of Audubon (who is also doing excellent work as a California Fish and Game Commission member) and birder and author Richard Crossley. Both were excellent and entertained us as well as making us think.

A lone immature red-tail watching us at Captain Jack's. 
On Sunday morning we had originally thought
that we would sleep in and then drive back to Eugene via Crater Lake for a snowshoe or cross-country ski, but we had not seen the sandhill cranes yet so we looked on the maps to see where they had been spotted earlier during the week.

We headed down to the Lower Klamath refuge for this and right after we passed the big white crew bus full of birders on a tour we saw what looked to the naked eye to be Canada geese way off in the distance in a field.  When we brought our binoculars up we found they were the sandhills we sought.  Two of them danced for us and I wonder if they or the folks in the tour bus behind us saw that we danced back.  One the loop back we saw a tree full of bald eagles and got fairly close to an eagle near a nest and then we were off for other adventures.

Our last stop on the Lower Klamath driving loop.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Do We Want Salmon on Toast or Salmon to be Toast?

By Bob Ferris

In 2003 I wrote an opinion piece in the Santa Barbara News Press about steelhead and water.  The basic message revolved around a childhood drinking fountain taunt to someone taking too long slurping in the recess re-watering queue.  It went something like this: Hey, leave some water for the fish.

Entrance to Museum of Natural and Cultural History
on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.
I think about this now because last Thursday night during a Museum of Natural and Cultural History Darwin Days talk tribal fisheries biologist Ryan Branstetter from the Umatilla tribe said basically the same thing in talking about salmon and steelhead.  Only his message was “take only what you need,” but it comes down to nearly the same thing.  And I wonder if it is really enough.

My 2003 piece dealt specifically with water conservation and water levels in Lake Cachuma having a great impact on the prospect of native steelhead recovery in the Santa Barbara region.  Since that time my concern over those salmonids and others has snowballed to include the impacts of climate change, ocean acidification, and various land uses including forestry practices and the spraying of herbicides.

Predictions for one river in Washington showing more water
when not critical and less when water is critical.
Each time I see another presentation or read another study the prognosis gets worse.  Take a look at any credible river flow projection.  All that I have seen for Pacific salmon and steelhead country in the lower 48 states bottom out in significant ways leaving no water at times or waters that are so shallow that thermal dams—those areas too warm for fish to cross—will make most watersheds unusable for these iconic anadromous fish.  To make this last point in presentations I have often said that salmon and steelhead are “thermally damned” and I think this is apt.

Then too you have ocean acidification (again accelerated by fossil fuel use) and its nefarious chemical impacts—particularly on calcium-shelled mollusks like pteropods or sea butterflies.  Never heard of them or seen them?  Ocean acidification is basically melting the shells of these tiny planktonic snails frequently referred to as sea-going “potato chips” because of their popularity as a food item for sea birds, whales, food fish, and salmon.   To those paying attention this represents a deterioration of the lower levels of the oceanic food web on which so much depends including our own species.

In all of this it is hard to stay optimistic.  I had a conversation last year with Mike Finley head of the Turner Foundation about this topic.  They are working with the Wild Salmon Center and focusing much of their protection efforts in Kamchatka because they have seen all of the above and more. Mike and the Turner trustees have concluded that we have to save salmon somewhere and this may be the best, coldest and most remote bet.  The idea being that we save salmon in Siberia for eventual recolonization after it all falls apart elsewhere in the northern Pacific.   I am not quite sure that I am absolutely here yet, but I am close especially after seeing the meager snowpack in the Oregon Cascades this past weekend.
Mid-February snow coverage near the rim of Crater Lake.

So where does this leave us moving forward?  My sense is that we have to do everything in our power to stop our long term pattern of allowing the incremental death our shared resources by the “stupid.”   By this I mean our continual practice of allowing something to proceed not because it is a good idea but because it is not going to have a “significant” impact and even allowing some fudging on that.  This just-one-more-finger-full-of-frosting approach has left us with a greatly denuded and crumbling cake of a planet.  This might have been a great strategy when our resources were robust and stable but it simply is not in any way prudent when our natural resources are degraded and declining.

What does this mean operationally?  Let's start with no new pipelines or coal ports for starters—none (1,2,3).  Likewise, proposals for suction dredge mining, public lands grazing lease extensions, narrowing stream-side buffers on public lands and herbicide use in forests have to migrate from the fringe to the fore in terms of priority battles for all who care about salmon and western waters.  And we have to look at the “stupid” in our own lives and realize that our choices or inattention to our own impacts need our immediate attention too.

The March 2015 edition of National Geographic that hit my mailbox yesterday bears the headline: THE WAR ON SCIENCE.  And this gives a hint of the flip-side of this equation in terms of the positive steps that must be taken.  In short, we need to embrace the “smart” at the same time we are rejecting the stupid.  And that means navigating through the Fox News-style, Koch-induced smoke screens to where the actual science lives and breathes.  We need to become informed rather than molded by moneyed interests and then work together in a logical and realistic manner.

Once informed, we need to look honestly at dams, hatcheries, agricultural policies, land uses and energy systems and then engage in a massive redesign exercise based upon what will yield the greatest good with the least disruption.   Where dams are a major problem remove them and where that is not feasible design systems that more effectively eliminate their impacts.  Where hatcheries are disrupting natural cycles or contributing to genetic pollution create a restoration-driven glide path.  With energy too we have to envision a goal and then put all our efforts towards developing technologies and approaches that get us there rather than being sidetracked by this almost traitorous climate denial sideshow.

In this “smart” element we also have to look at ourselves and our actions.  Rather than sneering at that “hippy” across the street who has changed his or her front lawn into a food garden and decorated their house corners with rain barrels, we have to understand that those rain barrels may functionally act to mitigate disappearing snowpacks.   Since about six inches of snow is the equivalent of one inch of rainwater that “eyesore” might start looking a little better if it was thought of as a 4’X4’X5’ block of snowpack.

Co2ld Waters - Official Trailer from Conservation Media on Vimeo.

And, more importantly, we have to elect candidates and support incumbents who understand the importance of all of the above.  This likely cannot happen in a political system overshadowed by the Citizens United ruling or in the absence of something resembling the Fairness Doctrine policing our media.  Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard nails in his "crooks or dumb-asses" quote in the above video clip that needs to be played again and again.

Lots to ponder in this too long blog post, but it needs saying (and saying again).  The world has become more complex and treacherous since I used to utter the school yard taunt mentioned in the opening paragraph.  Now the taunt needs to be amplified and augmented with awareness and action.  The fish and ultimately we depend on this in so many ways.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Klamath Wetland at dawn.

via Instagram

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Friday, February 13, 2015

Miller Island Snow Geese

Wow, Snow Geese and their pals welcome us to Klamath Falls for the Winter Wings Festival.

Snow geese in K-Falls.

via Instagram

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Grizzlies, Wolves, and Elk Connected as One on the Hot Plate of Yellowstone

By Bob Ferris

It looks like someone else saw the comments by Dr. Geist before RMEF took them down (Source)
I once chastised the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for posting a climate change page written in part by animal behaviorist Val Geist who suggested that climate change was of little concern to elk--maybe even beneficial.  This was about the time when studies (one reviewed and partially sponsored by RMEF) were pointing to climate change and early brown-up of grasses as factors impacting elk in Yellowstone.  The page has since been removed, but the fact that it ever existed in the first place is problematic.

I think about this now as we receive reports that the Yellowstone grizzlies are emerging from their winter dens earlier than normal. Their truncated torpor is likely attributable to these record warm temperatures that the area is experiencing and therefore probably linked to the whole ball of climate change wax too.  The question in my mind pretty much immediately is: How is this ultimately going to impact elk and wolves?

I gravitate to the above question early on because I tend to think in terms of connectedness and it really looks like RMEF—at least under David Allen—doesn't or cannot.  I suspect this is why when others in the hunting and angling-oriented end of conservation were participating in discussions and coalitions on climate change’s impact on hunting and fishing such as the Beyond Season’s End effort, RMEF sat on the sidelines rather than stepping up to the plate and lending their voice and influence to this important debate.
"The first law of intelligent tinkering is to save all of the parts." Aldo Leopold
I suspect that part of this is Mr. Allen’s NASCAR background and his conservative political associations.  No doubt his ties to and dependence on Lucas Oil for some of his organization’s support are at play as well, but I wonder just how much of his resistance to and non-comprehension of concepts like climate change or predator-prey relationships comes from just not understanding the complexity of these abiotic and biotic relationships as well as their inter-connectedness.   These are threads that are seen clearly by some and appear absolutely invisible to others.

Crying Wolf - Stephen Vantassel: Stop Being Afraid from JD King on Vimeo.

I sometimes hope that through education we can open some eyes so that they will be able to see these wondrous threads and even develop an interest in looking for more.   But I also understand that some of the resistance to acceptance or even investigation of these phenomena is blocked by deep feelings such as fear expressed as hatred for wolves or even those of a religious nature like the fellow in the video above who was an interviewee for the anti-wolf movie "Crying Wolf."  

I posted the above video clip not just because it was so absolutely absurd, but because the gentleman featured was once connected to a school of natural resources at a major US university, which indicates the depth of the challenge we face.  And if you read the wolf-hatred piece and then look at the sole endorsement for the Cry Wolf movie on their website you'll see a familiar name and realize that while the challenge is deep it is relatively narrow as well.  

Rocky Mountain Elk by MONGO
I do not know what exactly to make of these early bears.  In fact there are a lot of large question marks hovering above my head as I write.  How, for instance, will competition for elk and bison carcasses impact bear and wolf populations as well as predation on live elk?  What does this early emergence mean for the overall energy budget of predators and what does that in turn mean for various prey populations?  What does this portend for reproduction rates or availability of foods when the Park’s young are most needy?  And what does this mean in terms of vegetative sources and the timing of events like brown-up when plant nutritional value plummets as nutrients travel root-ward? While I do not know the answers to the above questions, I do know with great certainty that my life is richer for being able to see these threads and being open to exploring the complexities.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Out-of-State Suction Dredge Miner Invasion in Washington: an Alien Invasive Species in the making?

By Bob Ferris

Suction dredger digging up bank and causing erosion.
In the late 1990s I had some peripherally involvement with the National Invasive Species Council—in part because advisory member Faith Campbell had office space just across from mine at Defenders of Wildlife. Like it or not I had front row seat to the development of policies in this body.  I liked their deliberative process because it really employed a triage-style approach whereby species were considered for the initial list if they were: 1) non-native (i.e., alien); 2) rapidly increasing; and 3) causing significant ecological or economic damage.  It was a good, measured approach that put the emphasis on species such as zebra mussels and wild pigs rather than striped bass in the West or pheasants.

I think about these decision screens for alien invasive species as I look at whether or not Washington State’s regulatory and enforcement infrastructure are sufficient to protect salmon, steelhead and bull trout waters from the onslaught of out-of-state suction dredge miners likely in their future.  This comparison seems aptly triggered because these miners meet all the above criteria for being considered an alien invasive species.

Too harsh and inappropriate?   Over the past several years I have become very familiar with suction dredge mining for gold and those who practice this destructive pastime (1,2,3) or profit for those who do.  I have had to contend with the specious and ridiculous arguments of a cadre of trumped up experts (1,2) promulgating myths (1,2,3,4) while suffering insults and jibes from those whose greed has convinced them that ripping up the bottom of our precious salmon and steelhead streams and sending plumes of silt across our waters is of little consequence or impact.  And I have watched suction dredgers (see above and below videos) belligerently break (1) or bend (1) our nation’s laws and issue direct and veiled threats to friends, colleagues, government employees, and elected officials.

For all the above reasons and more the activities of suction dredgers have been stopped in California (1,2,3), significantly reduced in Oregon (1,2,3,4) and restricted in Idaho (1,2).  As a consequence Washington State becomes the next frontier and battleground.  Oregon was not prepared in 2009 when the California moratorium went into effect and their suction dredging activity more than trebled.  Washington should take note.

Environmental legislation, regulations and enforcement systems depend heavily on a civil society that respects laws and essentially self-regulates.  These mechanisms need to be changed when the community to be regulated repeatedly demonstrates its inability to adhere to the nature and intent of those legal structures.

Moreover those mechanisms need to be overhauled when situations change such as greatly increased numbers.  Therefore, it is not only prudent, but necessary that legislators in Washington State craft strong and fair suction dredge legislation to look at this issue in the context of the players involved, their increased activity and also the threats that loom for salmon, steelhead and bull trout.  They seem to be doing that with HR 1162  and should be supported by those who value cold water fish habitat, clean waters and quiet in wild settings.

The public hearing for HR 1162 in Olympia is February 12, 2015

Other Useful Links:

Groups Speaking Out

Trout Unlimited Suction Dredge Page

Fish Not Gold

Gifford Pinchot Task Force

Wild Steelhead Coalition

Spokane Riverkeeper

Note: If I have missed your group and you have a page or statement and want to be included, please let me know.

Other Letters and Articles of Note

2013 Statements from the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society (1,2)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Riding the Rugged Raging River of Climate Change

By Bob Ferris

My wife and I met and married in Santa Barbara, California.  We wed on the beach in January and had little trouble convincing folks from across the country to shed their overcoats and show up.  We have since moved several times, but this lesson was not lost on us so we make every effort to revisit Santa Barbara or some other place that is warm on or near our anniversary.  The last two years we have been able to visit Santa Barbara.  We did so by train coming down from Oregon so we get a full view of the Golden State basically from top to bottom.

Southbound near Santa Barbara on Amtrak.
In January 2014 when we were near San Luis Obispo I had dozed off a little as the sun was washing the hills and the side of my head.  I looked up upon arousing to see a deer stumbling clumsily across a denuded hillside.  In my drowsiness my immediate thought was: late summer and no food.  I had seen this often enough during my deer research in the mid-1980s.  But then it struck me that this was January.  This made California’s drought more tangible to me as did walking in the dry bed of Mission Creek behind the Natural History Museum  where I had once stood with former California Assemblyman Pedro Nava celebrating progress made in the return of native steelhead.

This past holiday season we went down again.  But this time we watched with jaws dropped the flooding around Sacramento where Carlene spent her teen years—water, water everywhere.  My sense is that some will grab on to these two diametrically opposed happenstances and try to use them to make some specious arguments about climate change or the California drought—in spite of the fact that San Francisco recently reported no measurable rain during the month of January for the first time in 165 years.  Santa Cruz, where I lived for years, was rain-less too.

The prospect of dealing with the above nonsense makes me a little crazy as this whole climate change here for some insights on this and other societal disconnects with science).  This sort of throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach because of contradictory anomalies brings to mind another activity that Carlene and I enjoy: River running.  Why?
Carlene and I traveling in a calm patch on a river.
denial zombie has persisted long past its rational expiration date (see

We, and others, like running rivers because there is a certain level of risk and excitement with every set of rapids.  This unpredictable nature is brought on by fluctuating flow rates, rocks, differential erosion, log jams and all sorts of other related phenomenon that create eddies, waves, holes, slack water and a variety of course-altering forces.
“Rather, researchers report in Nature, these computer simulations just struggle to predict “chaotic” (or random) short-term changes in the climate system that can temporarily add or subtract from CO2 emissions’ warming effects.”  in “No, climate models aren’t exaggerating global warming” Washington Post February 4, 2015
Sometimes you are going up or down very rapidly or pushed left or right and even backwards or sucked under.  Yet nowhere in this grand and chaotic riverine experience does your mind disconnect from the fact that you are generally headed in a downstream direction.  Climate deniers would have you believe that weather anomalies—the functional equivalent of a river’s eddies, waves, holes and slack waters—alter the reality of the overall trend in the larger system.

Now I am not na├»ve enough to think that this analogy will convince many who do not willingly gravitate to reason.  That said, I am hoping that more and more of those who might will eventually realize that these weather anomalies, much like a spinning leaf caught in a tiny vortex near river’s edge, indicate very little about climate trends but there are those putting considerable effort and resources into telling you they do.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Friendly Fruit Tree Project: Having a Conversation with Your Tree

By Carlene Ramus

Jessica assessing a pear tree from
an orchard ladder.

I have always been a big fan of communitarianism.  Which is why I was happy to learn that here in the Friendly Neighborhood of Eugene Oregon, we have the Friendly Fruit Tree Project organized by my neighbors Matt Lutter and Jessica Jackowski.

In the harvest season, twenty or so neighbor 'harvesters' are on a contact list ready to get together to help other neighbors pick their fruit, press cider, share food preservation recipes, and other productive activities made more fun and informative by doing them together.  It keeps us active when the fruits ripen.

So what do FFTPers do in the off season?  We help in the care of our neighborhood fruit trees!  To do so in the best way possible, I clad myself from head-to-toe in pink rain gear and trudged across the street on a very rainy morning in February half expecting to be the only one willing to spend  4 1/2 hours studying pruning with Heiko Koester of Urban Eco Gardens (contact Heiko here).

Much to my surprise, I was late and lucky to get a seat with eleven other neighbors in Matt and Jess's living room.  Their son Avery's chalk came in handy as Heiko scratched it away illustrating his six- point system of pruning.  Hawthorn berry Rose petal tea and popcorn sustained us between our trips out to examine real, wet, and grimy trees.

Matt and Jess open the center of the tree by tying over branches.
This increases air circulation, which is critical here in the
Pacific Northwest in preventing fungal diseases
Most fascinating to me was the concept of pruning as an ongoing "conversation" between the pruner and the tree.  And how you can read the healing of past cuts to learn how to do them better.

The next day, some of us went out to join in a "conversation" a neighbor was having with her fruit trees.  A very personal thing actually.  Maybe that's what it feels like being a marriage counselor.

And then I came home to my own fruit trees, I wondered what I was saying about myself through my pruning and, perhaps more importantly, what my fruit trees were saying back to me.