Archive for the ‘natural history’ Tag
This year is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS). Hooray! Authorized on August 25, 1916 (of course), when US President Woodrow Wilson signed the ‘Organic Act’ (really), creating the Park Service and officially assigning management of the then-35 parks to the new Department. While this month marks the official start of the NPS, the history of national parks goes back many years earlier, when in 1872 Congress established Yellowstone National Park, the first ‘national park’ of it’s type in the world, natural spaces set aside for public recreation, education, and enjoyment.
During his 1901 – 1909 terms as President, Theodore Roosevelt (‘Teddy’) used his authority under the newly-established ‘Antiquities Act’ to name as National Monuments Devil’s Tower, Wyoming; El Morro, New Mexico; Montezuma Castle and Petrified Forest, Arizona; along with a large area of what is now Grand Canyon National Park. Always an outdoorsman and concerned about America’s national resources, deeply affected by his travels in the American West and camping trips in Yellowstone and Yosemite – another of the earliest-named parks – by the end of his service as President Teddy had set aside 18 significant cultural, environmental; or otherwise unique natural areas which later were incorporated into the NPS. He also personally scouted and marked trails in each of these areas; built cabins from trees he had fallen with his own ax; identified and cataloged every plant and animal within the areas; and greeted each park visitor as they arrived. Along with taking time to run for a third term as President. Well, maybe that’s somewhat exaggerated (except for the third term part, which ‘TR’ took on in 1912), but with his energy and enthusiasm, he would have done all those things, if he could.
“If not for this this ridiculous coat and hat forced upon me by propriety, I’d proceed to climb this tree and upon achieving the top, yell out ‘Bully’! Just because I can!”. Teddy Roosevelt, the first manly-man.
Not to be outdone, Teddy’s cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1933 transferred to the Park Service 56 monuments and sites administered by the Department of Agriculture and War Department (now known as Department of Defense. Because it sounds better to ‘defend’, rather than to ‘war’). Significant in the creation of the NPS we know today, this Executive Order set the foundation for additional Parks, Monuments and Sites which have been added through the actions of every President over the past 100 years. Formalized in 1970 through an act which recognized and authorized the Park Service to include all “miscellaneous areas administered in connection therewith” (the big words make it official), today’s National Parks have grown to more than 400 individual areas; of over 84 million acres; in all 50 states and outlaying areas under US management. And more areas are added every year. That’s quite a legacy that originated from the simple action of setting aside something unique and special for the future.
So this year – or every year, actually, but particularly during this 100 anniversary – everyone’s encouraged to get out and visit a National Park, Monument, or Site near you. There’s a location within a short driving distance of more than 80% of the American population. And with hundreds of sites and millions of acres to see, we’d better start now.
Michonne Says: With all those men making parks here and there you’d think I would have heard about it. I know there’s a ‘Monument Valley’ or something like that but if the men were really interested in making something special they would have made ‘Marmot Valley’. I’d visit there.
This weeks’ fast-breaking ruminant news has been an announcement of the American Bison (Bison bison) as the official National Mammal of the United States. (The official animal symbol of the USA is the Bald Eagle. And also, for now, the official bird). And, as the news announcers chew on this (many of whom wouldn’t know a Bison from a Beagle), we’re certain to hear the name ‘Buffalo’ mentioned from time to time. Which, if the reporters had quoted from an actual buffalo, these news bites would have correctly identified the Bison and Buffalo as two different, and not that closely related, animals living in different parts of the world and having entirely different histories. But maybe that was too much information for the news outlets to stomach.
Bison enjoyed running long before it became the trend to post selfies of your daily workout.
Bison are a member of the bovine family, generally large, herding, grassland animals that are found, in one species or another, across much of the world. Cows, which are specially bred bovines, are now nearly everywhere on earth there is man. It’s generally believed that cows (and other bovines) have four stomachs – which is somewhat true, as they actually have four compartments of a large stomach, each of which partially digests the tough, fibrous grass and other plants these animals eat. And also why they spend so much time eating, as there’s only a limited amount of nutrients in grass. Bison – for tens of thousands of years the most numerous bovine (or ruminant animal) in North America – could be found practically across the continent: From Atlantic to Pacific coasts; north into Alaska and south into Northern Mexico. Described by Native Americans as ‘too numerous to count’ the Bison was a revered and irreplaceable resource, providing many native nations, particularly those in the central US, with virtually everything they needed to survive. Over time nearly all bison were exterminated, largely because they were seen as a threat to western expansion (and with so many, how could killing a few thousand here or there make any difference). In less than a hundred years the only wild populations remaining in the US were a few small herds in the Midwest – largely the areas of Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas – and within a few decades these were gone also.
Which is strange that an animal that so many people were so anxious to be rid of, has been commemorated on currency; flags; postage stamps; statues; and other remembrances usually reserved for things people, well, appreciate, respect and value. Maybe by the designation this past week of the Bison as the National Mammal – along with the endless work that has gone into protecting the animals that remain and restoring their native environment – the Bison has finally achieved the recognition it deserves. Even though it’s still regularly mis-named as an African or Asian Buffalo that are only distant cousins.
Michonne Says: Those fuzzy-head bisons are one of the main reasons the little flag-tail squirrels live underground. The fuzzy-heads never look where they’re going and they will step on you without a second thought. I’ve heard the dangerous rattler-snakes make their loud rattler noises just to keep the bison from stepping on them, so those bisons don’t seem to pay much attention to anything. There’s not many fuzzy-heads or rattler-snakes living around marmots – I don’t think they like the rocks – but if they did live here, I’d stay underground too.
Mothers have quite the responsibility. Wildlife mothers, in particular (mothers of animals that are wildlife. Not necessarily mothers of children that act wild) have to make decisions and choices based upon the safety, protection, health and well-being of their children, while constantly aware of dangers from field and sky: From predators looking for an easy meal; to other members of the group who may not want babies around; to, now more than ever, pressures of a human world where cars, poisons, unsafe discarded food, backyard dogs and cats, and even other children (of the human type) are constant concerns that to wildlife are just more threats in a world already threatening. And animal mothers have to deal with all of it, without the help of a minivan, take out dinners, synched schedules, self-help books or even a convenient coffee bistro on every corner.
On our hikes, nature walks or even in own back yard we might come across young animals such as baby birds; rabbits; even deer who look so small and lonely and vulnerable and abandoned, we just want to help. What kind of mother would leave her babies alone, anyway? These modern wildlife mothers just have no idea how to care for a family. But temporarily leaving their young alone is not only the best way for many wild animals to care for their offspring; it’s the way generations of these species have lived and succeeded in a world that was dangerous long before they had to contend with human development and urban and suburban environments and people who want to help ‘abandoned’ babies yet are doing more harm, than good.
Although clearly told by her mother to ‘Not move from where I left you’, Fionna the Fawn couldn’t help sneaking into the neighbors’ pool.
While by our standards mothers who leave their children might be considered as poor role models (“Do what I say, not what I do!”), this ‘bad’ mothering is a wildlife adaptation that helps hide young animals from predators and draw attention away from the newly-born and toward the adult parents who are better equipped to evade, outrun, or outfox a fox or other predator. Wildlife mothers can leave their babies, safely hidden in tall grass, among shrubbery, or in other thick vegetation for hours or even a day, but always return to feed, care for, and check on the children. Young that seem abandoned and lonely are actually sitting quietly waiting for mothers’ (and sometimes fathers’) return, acting upon thousands of years of evolution and possibly doing just what mother tells them to. (Why human children don’t naturally sit quietly and do what their parents tell them to do, we don’t know.). Many wildlife young even have specialized camouflaged fur and feather patterns, make only soft sounds, and lack any strong odor which helps them hide. Again, just the opposite of human children.
So while any ‘abandoned’ wild baby is cause for our notice; it’s not necessarily cause for our attention. An animal that has been left for more than a day may require assistance from a qualified wildlife rehabilitator; and a baby bird, fallen from its nest, would need a helping hand to place it back in its home (the baby won’t be neglected because a human has touched it. That’s an old wives tale, probably told by an old wife who wasn’t a mother). Generally, the best way to help wildlife young is to leave them alone; keep a respective watch for return of the parents; and enjoy the sight of wild nature overcoming the challenges of living a wild life in a human-centered world. Because while a good wildlife mother might seem to ignore her children; only a bad human mother will interfere with the wildness that surrounds us all.
Michonne Says: My mother always watched us to be certain we didn’t get in trouble and If we went too far way she’d call us back and then we’d never hear the end of it. When I was a baby I didn’t think the world was all that dangerous but now that I am older I see you have to be very careful and always watch for trouble, no matter where adventure takes you.
Prior to the 20th Century, rivers throughout America ran freely: From their source headwaters; through forests and meadows, across prairies and sometimes underneath deserts; coursing toward the oceans while carving majestic canyons and molding the landscape; providing water and homes for countless fish, birds and other wildlife. The rivers were neither stopped nor faltered by any obstruction or barrier but surpassed and pushed through anything in their path. The rivers reserved all their energy for themselves, occasionally flooding farms and defeating towns to show humans who, really, is the boss. Selfish rivers. But beginning in the 1890s and continuing through the first half of the 20th century, humans took on this imposing power of uninterrupted water through the construction of hydroelectric dams; structures that, by channeling water flow and harnessing the power and strength of water provided tens of thousands of megawatts of electric energy to power the growth of cites and provide basic electrical power to rural communities. Take that, rivers.
While this all generally worked out fine for humans, hulking cement structures re-routing and blocking natural river flow was neither useful, not helpful, to wildlife: Fish, including Salmon and Trout (family Salmonidae) who need large stretches of turbulent water to thrive were restricted or populations cut off; wetlands were flooded or drained, the loss of homes to species from insects to mammals and vital to migrating birds who had fewer places to rest along flights of thousands of miles; and dams brought about changes in the amount and speed of flowing water (literally, the ‘ebb’ and ‘flow’), creating downstream basins holding millions of gallons of water in artificial lakes while upstream ecological communities suffered from water loss.
Dams can lead to stagnant water and unregulated algae growth. This can’t be good for anybody.
Crossing the border between California and Oregon lies the Klamath River. For centuries one of the main water sources for Northern California (the second largest river in the state) and a significant part of Oregon, the river continued unobstructed as Lewis and Clark charted a path to the Pacific Ocean; pioneers followed the Oregon Trail toward a better life; and 49er’s searched for gold. Local Native Americans believed the river was holy, balancing their lives with the river flow. But due to continued growth and development by the 1920’s dams were being built across the Klamath – by 1960 a total of four complexes providing power and regulating water resources to the benefit of man. Not so much to the benefit of anyone else.
While hydroelectric power is important, so is a healthy environment. Last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior; U.S. Department of Commerce; dam management company PacificCorp; and the states of California and Oregon entered into an agreement to remove all four dams on the Klamath River by 2020, resulting in one of the largest river restoration efforts in the country. Working with Native Nations; local communities; non-profit organizations and other interested parties, this agreement will work toward providing more equitable water resources to farms, ranches, and communities; allow for water recreation such as rafting and fishing; and perhaps most importantly, restore the river and river basin to its natural ecology. While this is a huge and hugely expensive project, the true cost can’t be measured in dollars but in the salmon who once again will be able to freely migrate to the ocean (and back!); flocks of birds who find a safe refuge in river-created marshes; and the numbers of people who just enjoy a peaceful afternoon sitting under a tree by the flowing water. And the only dams to be seen are built by beavers whose goal isn’t creating electrical power for televisions and computers and to light up the night sky; but just to keep the water from washing away their house.
Michonne Says: These ‘dams’ make water so there’s even more of it in one place? I don’t think I like that. Water’s best when it just passes by and maybe you can get a drink but then it doesn’t stay around. Then things could live in it and who knows that that could be. It’s best to leave that kind of water to bears (who like the fish) and striped-tail-night-mask raccoons (who don’t know better).
A mouse, is a mouse, is a mouse. (Actually there are over 1000 different types of ‘Myomorpha’, or ‘mouse like rodents’). But the popular image of a mouse is one that hides under your house and comes into the kitchen at night to eat cheese. Why someone would leave cheese out at night we don’t know. But while this ‘standard’ House mouse (Mus musculus) might be the most familiar rodent among all mice, the real story of ‘city mouse or country mouse’ is found among Peromyscus leucopus, the White Footed Mouse, a native species that has lived among humans for thousands of years. And today scientists are finding there are significant differences within this one species not due to centuries of evolution nor changing climate nor even geologic isolation of small populations – but from living in the city.
New York City is the most densely populated city in the United States, with over 8,500,000 people within 305 square miles. (As a comparison the Los Angeles metropolitan area is approximately 500 square miles with a population under 4 million). Also in New York you will find countless numbers of urban wildlife including coyotes; raccoons; possums; bats; millions of birds; and millions more rats and mice. Just as many New York humans are most comfortable staying within one borough – an area within the City large enough to be cities themselves – New York White Footed mice are content to live within one neighborhood. Or city park. Or vacant lot. And each of these areas – tiny mice boroughs in themselves – is showing that not only do mice (and humans) take on unique characteristics of their chosen neighborhood, but among White Footed mice is resulting in genetic differences that distinguish individual mouse populations from their cousins, still of the same species, but living in different areas of the City. Just like a resident of Brooklyn would never, ever be confused with someone from the Bronx.
“Yea, so some guy sez ta’ me he sez ‘How do I get to Carnigie Hall? I tell’m practice, lots a practice’. What’s you lookin’ at?”
Historically White Footed mice have not lived in close contact with humans, but on the edges of human development, favoring the border and edge areas of forests, fields, and meadows. These White Footed meeses (the plural of ‘mice’. We think.) prefer to remain within a small territory, seldom venturing more than a few hundred feet and when among humans hesitant to venture too far into ‘civilization’ but remaining in vacant lots, parks, and among roadside greenspaces. Scientists have long observed differences in behavior between these city-edge mice and their country-side counterparts; however only recently has the extent of these differences been uncovered. Looking at the DNA of almost 200 mice from 23 different city locations, it’s been found that the White Footed population has undergone two distinct evolutionary landmarks that forever changed, at the most basic level, the species: About 12,000 years ago at the end of the most recent ice age, receding glaciers shaped the geography of much of what is now the Eastern US, creating unique evolutionary distinctions among those species that survived the climatic changes. As the ice ages were an Earth-wide event, similar genetic changes are found in other species. But the second genetic change occurred only 400 years ago, just a moment in evolutionary time, when the area that is now New York City was shaped not by climate but by the arrival of Europeans and the resulting changes from meadows and forested land into agricultural fields, housing, roads and other development. The city mice have developed stronger, more resistant immune systems; differences in intestinal bacteria which helps the mice digest (and survive) less-than-wholesome foods; tend to be more acrobatic than the forest-and-field mice, bounding over vacant lot trash and sprinting among weedy tangles; and within each borough have become so genetically distinct from mice of other boroughs it’s possible to tell exactly in what area each mouse lives. All without checking their transit card.
These mice-sized discoveries are generating a mighty amount of work, as scientists around the world are investigating whether other urban wildlife species have developed not only behavioral changes, but evolved genetically. In this new field of urban evolutionary genomics, researchers are looking into the lives (and DNA) of urban coyotes; pigeons; rats; and other species; it’s already been noted that a certain type of Australian urban spider has evolved a larger body and greater reproductive abilities; and in the Netherlands urban birds sing louder and at a higher pitch to be heard among city sounds. Just as humans have shaped the cites we live in, it seems we’ve also shaped the wildlife that share those cities. And the louder and busier and more complex our lives become, urban wildlife are right there among us, evolving to fit into the city as they remain wild and untamed. Which, according to some opinions, is the perfect and only way to survive in the big city.
Michonne Says: Marmots try to stay away from human places but if any marmots did want to live there (and I don’t know why they would), they would probably change and be different, too. There’s that groundhoggy that the men look at for a shadow or no shadow and I think he lives near humans and they never leave him alone. That’s enough to change anybody.
It’s (almost) Spring! When flowers are in bloom; birds busy themselves seeking out the best nest materials; groundhogs emerge from their dens (not because they do or do not see their shadow but because they’re hungry); and it’s neither too hot nor too cold to enjoy carefree days of picnicking, walks in the country; and enjoying lively green plants rustling in a gentle wind. But just when you thought it was safe to go outside, yet another ecological intruder raises its trespassing head: The invasive ‘superweed’ Johnsongrass (Sorghum halapense) – but cleverly disguised as a harmless, and to many observers, welcome and hearty ornamental plant.
Humans generally have a love/hate relationship with grass. Some types – like the luxurious Bluegrass (a favored type for lawns, even though it’s not really blue); thick Fescue (often used for playing fields and other well-used areas); and Bermuda (you don’t have to live in the tropics to enjoy this variety!) are sought out by park planners, landscapers, and homeowners who will, inevitably, yell at kids to get off their grass. But other types of turf: Zoysia, unwelcome for lawns due to it’s prickly feel; and Crabgrass, a generic name for many types of uneven, clumpy, quickly spreading grass (which even crabs themselves don’t particularly like), are despised by most acreage activists and considered unwelcome or even ripped out of the ground as that most unwelcome of all plant types, the lowly ‘weed’. (Although by researching native plants in your area, many ‘weeds’ are actually valuable – but maybe not pretty – important parts of the natural ecosystem).
Fallstaff, as a representative of AGHH! (Associated Goat and Herbivore Hotline), knows Johnsongrass could make him sick. That’s why he eats a balanced diet of weeds, bark, and shrubs.
Still, humans seem to like ‘nice’ grasses, particularly those that show unique features such as a tall profile or unusual seed stalks; that gently sway in a breeze; or with varying shades of green that can be highlighted in a landscape as ‘specimen’, ‘border’ or ‘foundation’ examples. And in its clever plan to invade our yards and parks, Johnsongrass fits many of these qualities. Along with, unfortunately, the ability to quickly out-compete native grasses and plants; crowd out cultivated plants in agricultural fields; and even produce toxins that poison livestock who eat the grass. Of course Johnsongrass itself isn’t purposely undertaking the invasion of our lands on its own; as a species out-of-place, the plant is well-adapted to its native environment among fields, forest edges and streambanks of the Mediterranean, half a world away from North America; but as an introduced species, the plant becomes a formidable competitor which can unbalance entire ecosystems.
Maybe the real origin of this invasion is the man who’s credited with naming – and encouraging the spread of Johnsongrass – Colonel William Johnson. About a decade before the Civil War (‘War Between the States’; or, for Col. Johnson and other Southerners, the ‘War of Northern Aggression’), Johnson brought seeds of the newly-introduced plant back to his Alabama plantation to stabilize the loose soils around riverbanks. Being a fine Southern gentleman, the good Colonel distributed seeds of the grass to his friends and neighbors, recommending the plant as a fine example of the variety of ‘useful and ornamental’ plants produced by the Southern states. While some sources claim the grass had already begun to establish itself in other areas of the US as early as the 1840’s, it’s curious that Col. Johnson, by 1860 too old to serve in the Army yet with a distinguished record during the War of 1812, chose to inspire the proliferation of a plant that flourished in the South, and in many ways was at the time viewed as a symbol of Southern prosperity. Today the battles of that terrible time may be over; but the war against an invader continues on.
Michonne Says: I’ve seen all types of grass and I don’t think any of them were named Johnson. But I never really thought about it. Besides I don’t have much use for any plants that don’t have flowers or berries.
Creation of a new National Park; Monument; Trail; Preserve; or other unit of the National Park Service – each a natural or historic area (sometimes both!) set aside from development for the enjoyment of all people – isn’t an easy process and once accomplished should be a cause for celebration. It’s not everyday that an area is identified and protected as something so special, it’s highest value is to left alone. Since taking office in 2009, our current President has approved nineteen new National Park units; from January 2015 until today, he has designated three new National Monuments in California that protect more than 1.8 million acres of public land; unique ecosystems; and provided additional refuge for threatened and endangered species. But it seems you can’t please everyone all the time, and while everyone in the US who appreciates open spaces or wild places; or clean air or clean water; or a healthy environment should be happy, there’s a group of politicians in Washington who are upset about these new national lands – and this group just always has to be ‘Right’.
Public lands can be shaped in one of two ways: Through grass-roots organization (which can do more than just protect grass, and its roots) that inform, educate, and make aware the importance of a specific site or area, and by engaging with government officials and elected representatives ultimately result in a congressional action that is voted upon by Congress and approved by the President; or lands can be designed by the President as culturally, historically or environmentally unique and of greater importance to the people as a whole rather than any private or commercial development. As his duty and responsibility as President, the current office holder has special powers that were transferred to him when he was bitten by a radioactive spider. No, that’s not right, really these powers were created by Congress (no comment on any connection between mutated arachnids and congressmen) as part of the Office of the President, which not only allow but entrust whoever is currently President to make decisions and actions based upon his determination of what is best for the country and all its people, not just what might be fitting for a small (or influential) group. One of these powers – the Antiquities Act – was approved by Congress in 1906 to allow Presidential action in preserving and protecting American natural, historic, and scientific lands and sites. Monuments as large as thousands of acres; and as small as a few hundred square feet have been set aside through this Act, and the Supreme Court – as many say, the final word in the land – has multiple times upheld these Presidential actions.
‘Sheepstep’, the Desert Bighorn, is shocked to hear some people don’t think his home is special enough to be preserved. He’s also surprised he can stand on the side of a rock without falling off.
However recently a few members of the House of Representatives decided the best way to represent the people who voted for them is to go against this long-standing Presidential responsibility and are calling for an investigation into the Presidents’ declaration of the Mojave Trails; Sand to Snow; and Castle Mountains National Monuments in the California desert, enacted this February. Also, these representatives are questioning Presidential approval of six other monuments dating back to January 2015. Since taking office in 2009 our current President has approved nineteen new National Park units; of these five have completed extensive public and private review process, been authorized by Congress and are awaiting budgeting, land acquisition, and final organizational steps. While other proposed Park units are under review and (for a time) outside the influence of Congress, it seems the Presidential applications of the Antiquities Act is what’s got these House members upset. Assuming, of course, they really are upset about these National Monuments and not about, say, political differences that they hold against a President who belongs to a different political party and holds contrasting beliefs. Of course virtually every recent President – including those in the right wing – has declared or approved natural and historic sites: Richard Nixon created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco and Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City. President HW Bush added fourteen new National Park units and his son George Bush created or approved seven units. Under Ronald Reagan, upheld by many as the founder of the current Republican Party (and who once said “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”) eighteen new National Park units were added. In 1906 Republican President Theodore Roosevelt created the National Park System much as we know it today.
Yet today these House representatives, elected by the people, are charging “lack of transparency and consultation with local stakeholders” by the application of the Antiquities Act. Despite extensive research, public comment, countless hours of outreach and almost endless pages of reports completed and presented to the President before he took action. No one really knows what these House members are trying to achieve. We’d like to think this is an April Fools joke – but today’s April third, not the first – so if there’s any joke in this, it isn’t for our enjoyment, but rather our loss.
Michonne Says: All these national places are for the people? What about for marmots and other animals, too? Does that mean more men will be coming into the forest and the fields? I don’t like that one bit. Or maybe it means the forest and fields will be left alone so the men can visit and play and look, but not change things. I like THAT a lot.