Sunday, June 01, 2014

Managing the unmanageable wildernesses

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, endangered species, wildlife management

We might joke about our favorite oxymorons, such as Jumbo Shrimp, Objective Opinion, or Act Naturally (a wink and nod to Ringo), but the most tragic is Wildlife Management. Frankly, if it is managed, it isn't wild. A landscape designer can produce a "naturalistic garden" using a couple dozen species of trees, shrubs and low plants. It looks delightfully wild, yet is entirely designed. A half-acre woods near my home has at least 45 tree species that I can recognize—including at least six kinds each of oak and maple—, and many more species of shrub and undergrowth, from skunk cabbage to poison ivy and Virginia creeper. Nature is complex.

Compare these two polar bears:

I suppose I could claim they are the same bear at different times, but no, the one on the left is in Alaska, near the northern edge of North America, well fed in late Winter, and the other is in the area of Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay, near the southern limit of polar bear range, approaching starvation while waiting for ice to form in the Fall. If the current climate warming continues, and the Arctic becomes ice-free, in another decade or so the Alaskan bears will be in as much trouble as those of southern Hudson Bay.

Polar bears were the first of three species that Jon Mooallem followed and studied while preparing to write Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Three animals, a bear, a butterfly, and a bird. Three time scales of "management". For all the subspecies of polar bear, Ursus maritimus, the danger has been perceived only for a couple of decades. For the butterfly, Lange's Metalmark, Apodemia mormo langei, which is a subspecies of the Mormon metalmark, "management" of its habitat has been going on for decades. The bird, the whooping crane, Grus americana, neared extinction in the 1940s and has rebounded to nearly 300 birds.

The Churchill area polar bears have become quite a tourist attraction. I suppose early in the on-land season, when they come off the remnants of the ice well-fed and fat, they are good-looking bears. Then they must fast until the ice re-forms in Autumn, and many lose half their weight. As Spring thaw works its way earlier, and the Fall freeze later, the number that simply starve each Summer is increasing. This presents a quandary to conservationists. Should they feed the bears? If they do, are they wild any more? And will not the easier life, by dialing back natural selection, weaken the population as a whole?

Hah! Look at the human race. Most Westerners, living an easy life compared to the poor 2/3 of humanity, are clearly weaker and less "fit" in a Darwinian sense than their ancestors of just a couple centuries ago. I fear the result of something like a "limited nuclear exchange", which will result in the destruction of most of our electronic "crutches". If your house or apartment building lost all utilities for, say, five years, and your cell phone had burned out in the EMP, how would you fare?

We do need to do something about carbon emissions, and in my view, shifting toward using more natural gas (methane) and less coal, while we use those sources of energy to develop low- and non-carbon sources, makes the most sense. Here is the chemistry:
  • Coal burning: 2CH (average composition) + 1.5O2 → 2CO2 + H2O
  • Methane burning: CH4 + 2O2 → CO2 + 2H2O
Simply put, coal is about 7.5% hydrogen and methane is about 25% hydrogen. Burning that hydrogen produces lots of energy without adding any CO2 to the atmosphere. Methane is a "halfway there" energy source. It has been said that if we actually stopped burning all fossil fuels today, it would take a generation for the atmosphere to return to a pre-industrial level. This chart hints at a more optimistic prediction:

The yearly uptick in the Northern Hemisphere air mass is from Winter heating, including lots of coal burning. The downtick is from the relatively smaller Northern energy use during Summer. This rapid response (about 2%) strongly hints that any genuine reduction in carbon use would be quickly reflected in the CO2 level of the atmosphere. Thus, to whatever level our use of carbon fuels is affecting the current warming cycle, to that extent it could shift, and shift quickly.

But changing carbon use will take time. Solar power does not yet provide more than 1% of electricity generation, and wind is approaching 6%. It will take combined non-carbon sourcing to approach 33%, to make a significant shift in CO2 production, because energy use continues to climb.

The polar bear, as a truly wild species, may be doomed. Can we turn them into a managed species during a meltdown, and successfully restore them to truly wild status, in, say, 100-200 years? Maybe. In the meantime, the warming has also allowed northern grizzly bears to move into the southern parts of the polar bears' Summer range. Interbreeding has been recorded. I think the consensus term for resulting hybrid bears is pizzlies. By the time a managed white bear is ready to be returned to the wild, they may have to compete with a beige population of omnivorous bears that out-compete them in all seasons! Then what? Which bear will that generation "favor" over the other? And how will it be accomplished? Open hunting season on the disfavored bear?

On to the butterfly. This is a Lange's metalmark, feeding on its host plant the naked-stem buckwheat. The caterpillars will eat only this plant's leaves. This particular subspecies of the Mormon metalmark is one of a very few endangered species that are insects. This image is roughly life size (photo by Mike Kepka of the San Francisco Chronicle).

This poor little butterfly is known only from the Antioch Dunes Wildlife Refuge, a 55-acre area on the San Joaquin River in California. The "dunes" exist no longer. A quirk of the wind had piled up a lovely landscape of shifting sand dunes in the area, and they have been mined for sand for at least 70 years. More recently, a gypsum wallboard plant was constructed right in the middle of the area, before it was designated a Refuge, taking up about a quarter of the area. This aerial image shows the scene:

The entire refuge is about 1,100 m long, from WNW to ESE, and less than 300 m across. The buckwheat does not do well in competition with plants that have been invading since the shifting sand was all removed. There has been a series of 1-day counts by teams of volunteers for many years. A couple of generations ago, Lange found thousands of the butterflies here. A generation ago, there were a few hundred, then later 100 or so. The last couple of years, the count has been about 25-35.

The author notes that the actual identity of this butterfly is troublesome. Members of another subspecies of the Mormon metalmark look almost identical and feed on the same host plant, yet genetic studies indicate they are not as closely related as a different subspecies that actually looks somewhat different and is lighter in color. The scientific identity and the political identity of the species are quite different.

Mooallem participated in one of the counts. He wonders how a group of amateurs, most of them first-timers with a short introduction to pictures of the butterfly, can accurately find and count them. I think he need not worry. I recall taking our son fossil hunting with a rock club when he was 4. The leader of the expedition took a moment at the entrance to the quarry to show us the kinds of fossils we might find. He pointed out a particular brachiopod shell, saying, "This one is pretty rare. We might find one or two today." Our son looked at it for a moment and trotted off. Within half an hour he brought back six of them. We all kidded that it was because his eyes were closer to the ground than the rest of us. But then, by the end of the day most of us had found at least one.

It may be that as I write an early count is taking place that will find no butterflies at all. Or they may find 40 or more. A recent news note states that the public will be allowed to enter the refuge for the first time in many years this Summer. Will this help or hinder conservation efforts? Opinions differ.

This is one major point the author brought out in all sections of the book. Opinions differ. Contentions abound among "the good guys", those who are trying to save each of these species. This was most evident in the third section, about the whooping crane.

The related sand hill crane, a popular subject of photographers visiting Nebraska, is a gregarious bird, doesn't seem much affected by moderate amounts of human contact, and migrates as a flock, in which the young follow all the flock to learn the way. Not so the whooper. They are typically edgier, stay farther apart most of the time, and the young will follow only their parents to learn a migration route. Thus an effort to introduce a new population of the birds, that live farther east and fly from Wisconsin to Florida, has been particularly hard.

In recent years a team has been raising crane chicks while wearing special suits—and never speaking near them—and training them to use the new migration path using ultralight airplanes, on which the chicks are imprinted when young. It was hard to tell, but the people seem to outnumber the birds. This "eastern flock" may be approaching 100 birds, but something the "crane people" haven't been able to teach them is how to care for an egg or raise a chick. If I read right, not one chick has been hatched, raised, shown the new migration route by its parents, and grown to adulthood. One and one only was raised and shown the migration, but died the same year.

The various groups that coordinate all this effort seem to spend half their effort disputing and working at cross-purposes. The same human nature that led some to endanger these birds in the first place is still present in the helpers. These folks may have a longer view when it comes to trying to gain a longer future for the birds, but they are as short-sighted as anyone else about fund raising and funds allocation and prioritizing all the needed tasks. The last ultralight armada may have already flown. When the book was written, there was very little optimism that the program would continue. I guess the success of the "eastern flock" of whooping cranes now depends on a small number of mated pairs figuring out how to raise chicks to maturity.

The whooping crane is a big, beautiful bird. These are in Texas. They may be more adaptable than people give them credit for. The book includes a number of stories of cranes that got "off program". After all the care the group went to, keeping them from human contact, some found their way to yards with bird feeders or to farms where crop remnants could be gleaned. In the eyes of some this "ruined" their wildness.

Gimme a break! The next door neighbor has a bird feeder. Cardinals we see in our yard sometimes eat there. I grew sunflowers for the Great Sunflower Project for a few years. I saw my first goldfinches when they came to my sunflowers. Are these birds damaged by getting within a couple meters of a human? More to the point, though, are such stories signs that the crane is more diverse than they thought, or is it that they are changing in the face of the changing conditions. Are they still the same bird that existed under this name 150 years ago?

There would be a problem if young cranes imprinted on humans. They'd have problems courting and mating, for example. Not realizing the beautiful crane nearby was the intended partner, one might have eyes only for other humans. But once they have grown past adolescence, they'd do well to get used to a world full of humans. We're everywhere. ("And that's the problem!" some anti-human eco-crazies shout. They rant about the need to "cull" the human race by some 50-90%. Well, the feeling is mutual. I want them dead as much as they want me dead. Watch your back, dude! There were no such eco-crazies recorded in Wild Ones.)

I find less reassurance than the author does. Einstein wrote, "The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the level of thinking we were at when we created them." That could be expanded to, unless we ourselves change, we will seldom see problems we've created and will be unable to solve those we do see.

Try this for one minute: Take out a watch that shows seconds. If you are at rest, you are probably taking a breath every 5 seconds, or 12 per minute. For the next 32 seconds, take a breath every 4 seconds exactly (that's 8 breaths), then for the following 28 seconds, a breath only every 7 seconds (that's 4 more). For that first minute, it is probably not too hard. Try another minute, then another. Nobody I know can make it to 5 minutes. You are still taking 12 breaths every minute, but you are actively managing your breathing rate. It also takes up all your attention and you will be unable to do anything else such as read or even converse with someone. This is analogous to trying to manage nature.

I once wrote a short-short, which I'll pare down even farther:
Young Tom is now enamored with power. He speaks of it all the time. He yammers while I look about and study, and consider. I must care for the needs of my people. While he speaks of this plan and that project, I beckon and lead him to the river bed, where I move a few stones. We leave. The next rain will be diverted, just a bit. In time, the river will shift its course.
When we have the wisdom to read a river's future in the lay of the stones, we'll be able to make the small changes that amount to the best way to make changes worth making.

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