August 20, 2016

Why Mountain Bikes Don't Belong in Wilderness Areas

As its name suggests, the Wilderness Act of 1964 has been in effect for fifty years, long enough that most Americans have grown up with it.

From a campfire-argument point of view, I could say that our culture is weird if we have to draw lines around a small portion of the country — only 2.7 percent of the Lower 48 — and say, "In these places, natural processes are more important than the human ego."

In other words, plants and animals come ahead of human exploitation, whether that be for economic or recreational reasons.

(Like Gary Snyder, I define "natural" as those self-organizing processes not under the ego's control — including most of what your body is doing right now.)

On the ground, the "wilderness" designation usually means no engines, no wheels. If you want to do in, you walk, ride a horse (or other equine), paddle, or float. Some of these can even be done by people with disabilities!

Come now two senators from Utah, Orrin Hatch and  Mike Lee, who want to allow bicycles in wilderness areas.

Since I really doubt that either one of them lives for mountain biking, I suspect that this is just a thinly disguised attack on the very idea of designated wilderness. They don't care about bicyclists as such, they are thinking about oil wells etc.

As the "camel's nose under the tent," mountain bikers work pretty well, better than ATV riders, for example. After all, they are "using the quads God gave them," as a certain anti-ATV bumper stick says.

But they still don't belong in designated wilderness areas, not under the spirit of the Wilderness Act, which has pretty well proved its worth in fifty years.

Yes, bikes are quiet(er) than motor vehicles, but as they rush over the trail (go to get cool vid on that helmet-mounted GoPro camera, right?), they are still a disturbance.

Let's keep Wilderness Areas as they are, places where the needs of plants and wildlife come first. Sure, we can go there with respect, but our desires to put knobby tires everywhere in the name of recreation can be limited in these small slices of America.

If you think that mountain bikes are cuddly and harmless, you can make your case — but then you are opening the door for the next mechanical intrusion. And the next. And the next.

August 17, 2016

A Singles Bar for Beavers

Orphan beaver kit in July  2016 (Courtesy Wet Mountain Wildlife).


Beavers normally live in family groups, "colonies that may contain 2 to 12 individuals. The colony is usually made up of the adult breeding pair, the kits of the year, and kits of the previous year or years" (Source here).

You can't just drop a strange beaver in and expect it to be accepted.

So how can orphaned beavers be returned to the wild?

This month the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife returned this beaver and some others to a stream where no beavers currently live, but which is good potential habitat.

Supervised (not pursued!) by a game warden's dog, the beaver swims away (Colorado Parks and Wildlife).

It checks out its new habitat (Colorado Parks & Wildlife).

The reintroduced beavers are all unrelated, of course. They normally mate in mid-winter, with kits born in the spring. So what we have here is a sort of a singles bar for Castor canadensis, with the hope that at least one or two breeding pairs will be created.

It is hard to sex beavers by looking at them, incidentally. Their external genitalia look the same. Some people can tell male from female by sniffing.

August 05, 2016

Rattlesnake, You Can't Go Home Again. Or Can You?

When I relocated the rattlesnake last Saturday after it alarmed the guests in the cabin, the wife of the couple staying there asked me, "It won't come back, will it?"

"No," I said, "It won't." But what did I know? Especially when a day or two later, when M. was walking our dog on the county road, and encountered one of the neighbors, who told her how she and her husband had encountered a rattlesnake earlier along that road — and it was buzzing angrily.  (He had gone home for his gun, but on his return, the snake was gone.)

We drove "our" snake about a mile up that road when we relocated it to its new home. Do they come back? It was time to ask Mr. Google.

Mr. Google brought me to a guest-blog post by Erika Nowak, a herpetologist from Northern Arizona University.  (Her master's thesis was on the "biological effects and management effectiveness of nuisance rattlesnake translocation.")

She is no fan of translocation — it breaks up snake social groups — unless the alternative is death or habitat destruction. (See also the Advocates for Snake Preservation website.)

She writes that it is "best to relocate within 1 square kilometer (0.6 mile): Short-distance translocation is considered to be within the rattlesnake’s normal home range; a general rule of thumb in the southwestern U.S. that I use for larger species like western diamond-backed rattlesnakes is an average of 1 square kilometer."

And this: 
The reality is that in the short term, most adult rattlesnakes will try to home back to where they were moved from. This phase often results in higher than normal mortality rates from disease, predation, and being hit by cars.
Or death from a neighbor who has the usual Western "all snakes must die" outlook.

A hummingbird can fly from southern Mexico or wherever, start hovering at the spot where the feeder hung last year, and we think that is normal for birds. But cold-blooded reptiles never seem as clever as birds to me.

So now we are wondering, was that "our" rattlesnake coming home again? Or was it another member of its extended family, in which case this is not only a big mouse year but a big rattlesnake year.

July 30, 2016

On Being Ranger Rick, Or Not

Western rattlesnake (Idaho State University).
I was deep into an editing job, wondering as always why some people can earn a PhD without knowing how to write a References list, when the telephone rang.

The rental cabin was taken for a long weekend by a couple from somewhere in the Denverplex — Aurora, I think. It was the wife, and she sounded kind of shaky.

"I went out to my truck, and there's a SNAKE!"

"OK, "I said," I'll be right over."

I had a seen a bullsnake over there before. People are always mistaking them for rattlers and going all herpe-cidal. I got a five-gallon plastic bucket and a shovel and walked the couple hundred yards to the cabin.

Curled by the retaining wall that holds up the parking space  was a Western rattlesnake.* Well, hello, little guy, are you the reason that I have not been catching mice in my cabin traps?

The woman was inside the back door, practically chewing her knuckles. Her husband was on the steps with a big stick, but keeping his distance.

I scooped the snake and dropped it in the bucket. Look at me, I'm Ranger Rick!

I surely was not going to reach down and pick up the bucket's bail, so I tried to work the shovel blade undernearth it. And I knocked over the bucket, and the snake slithered out onto the lawn, heading for some thicker vegetation.

"X*%$," I thought, "Now I will have to kill it to keep them from panicking."

But the snake was so angry that when I prodded it again, it coiled up, and again I scooped it, dropped it in the bucket, and walked away with the bucket held by the shovel blade.

"Kill it!!!" she called through the window.

No, I said, I would relocate it. Perversely enough, my experience ten years ago makes me more tolerant of rattlesnakes. Maybe the venom changed my brain.

This rich Texan has bought up a lot of land around us, including a small ranch whose previous owner had decorated one area with signs proclaiming "RATTLESNAKE TEST AREA. KEEP OUT." (Works better than "No Trespassing," don't you think?)

Those signs are gone now, but we all remember them.

Once home, I dropped the bucket into an empty garbage can, snapped on the lid, and secured it with a bungie cord. Mr. or Ms. Snake had been buzzing the whole time and kept on buzzing while M. and I took it for a drive. That was one angry snake.

Where the county road parallels a creek in the former "test area," I tipped over the garbage can, spilled out the bucket, and then removed bucket and garbage can with the shovel. We left the snake there by the side of the road, still coiled and buzzing.

Now if I could just find a bull snake, I could relocate it down in the gully where I have been dumping all the mice that I live-trap in the garage and basement here at the house. There was even one in my study wastebasket earlier this week — it has been a huge mouse year.

       *It seemed two feet long, so it was probably 18 inches.

Water Hemlock Can Kill a Dog

Last summer a border collie chewed on some water hemlock near Fort Collins and died on its way to the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

As every plant guide will tell you, water hemlock in bloom looks a lot like Queen Anne's lace, which is completely harmless — its roots are edible. So you can have a fruitful wildcrafting experience, or you can die twitching and drooling.

How do you tell the difference? I was taught the purple blotches, but there are other distinctions as well, which this well-illustrated web page explains.

You might not think of water hemlock as attractive to dogs, but some will chew on plants randomly. (I'm looking at you, Fisher.)

July 29, 2016

Escape from Stalag-Dachs 17!


Over at the rehabilitation center, Gus the badger has been working on his tunneling technique. He started with the boulder visible on the left. The swift fox that was released last April had a small den underneath it — Gus spent a couple of months enlarging that sett (den), adding more entrances, and even dragging in a small log — a roof prop?

But then his ambition grew: it was time to tunnel for freedom!

His enclosure is made from chain-link fence, and the mesh comes in horizontally for about thirty inches on each side to deter digging. Hah! Gus located the edge (you can see it behind his head), and dug under it until he reached the outer wall. Then he kept digging.

The rehabbers are philosophical about his escapes. The exit is in a meadow, and they figure that digging a tunnel is part of the rehab process.

Gus still comes back for meals — frozen rats, etc. But he is developing an adult personality, a more aggressive one. Grown-up badgers are the opposite of cuddly.

The only question seems to be whether he will be somehow caught and relocated to a good release site, or whether he will release himself.

UPDATE: Around the 10th of August, Gus started leaving some of his frozen mice uneaten. Evidently he was feeding himself. By the 16th, he had been missing from his enclosure for several days and was presumed to be living on his own.

"So long, and thanks for all the mice." (Classical reference.)

July 21, 2016

Relocating Trout after the Hayden Pass Fire


Firefighters are demobilizng from the Hayden Pass Fire, which started Friday, July 8th, and really blew up the following weekend, covering more than 16,000 acres at the northen end of the Sangre de Cristo Range in Fremont and Custer counties.

Inside the fire permeter was a creek containing a genetically unique strain of endangered Colorado greenback cutthroat trout. Wildlife biologists feared they could be harmed by the fire itself or by erosion from burned slopes afterwards.

As soon as it was possible, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife crew retrieved as many of the trout as possible by electroshocking netting, in order to move them to a temporary home elsewhere.

From a forestry standpoint, this area was overdue for a big fire. I remember the last time that M. and I hiked up Big Cottonwood Creek, one of the drainages affected, I was struck by the amount of dead trees stacked up.

But as she points out, a lot of little lives are always lost in such a fire. We make our choices as to which ones can be saved.

July 12, 2016

Some Actual Journalism about Wildfire

Hayden Pass Fire, Fremont County, Colo.,
as of July 11, 2016.
Three years ago, after the Royal Gorge Fire, I was complaining that no one ever seemed to assign a cause to some of the big fires in southern Colorado, such as Waldo Canyon (2012) or Black Forest (2013).

Reporters go to the twice-daily fire briefings, they all file the same stories, be they print or electronic or web, and then there is no follow-up.

But here is one exception to that pattern: some actual reportage from the Colorado Springs Independent. The headline, however, is not too promising: "Waldo, Black Forest Fire investigations lurch to a standstill years later."
Four years later, though permits have been issued to rebuild 309 homes from Waldo and 311 from Black Forest, the causes of both fires remain a mystery, and barring a new revelation, they might go unsolved forever.

"I would love to say an arrest is imminent, but I can't say that," said El Paso County Sheriff's Commander Richard Hatch, who oversees the still-active Black Forest Fire investigation.

Colorado Springs Police Sgt. John Koch, a former investigator on the Waldo fire, says investigators are at a stalemate without a tip or new development that would unlock the puzzle.

"We still encourage members of the public with knowledge of suspicious activity to come forward," Koch says.
At least someone was arrested for starting the Cold Springs Fire, still burning west of Boulder. But really, don't we have enough homegrown idiots without having to import them from Alabama?

Further south, our skies are smoky from the still-rolling Hayden Pass Fire, which has passed 12,000 acres in size. (4,900 ha.) Blame lightning for that one. You can't arrest Thor.

I blame the reporters for passivity, but there is more than that. I worked as a newspaper and magazine journalist, but I have also held an institutional public relations job.

Since I got into the emergency-services scene, however, I have been shocked at how these people seem to hate the news media.

When you consider the passivity of most reporters these days, that's sort of like hating springer spaniels.

Hence my moment of glee at seeing an actual follow-up story. Even though it offers no revelations, at least it is a progress report.

July 03, 2016

I Miss Goth Coyote, But Her Urban Cousins Are Fine

Coyote in Douglas fir and oak brush.
This coyote turned up on a scout camera last week, which vindicated what I was thinking — that although I had not heard one for a couple years, I thought that I had seem some scat along the Forest Service road.

Their howls used to provide the soundtrack of pre-bedtime dog walk. At one time, a few years ago, there was an individual whom I named Goth Coyote, because his/her howls had extra wavers and quavers that spoke of torn lace, high-heeled boots, and heavy eye makeup.

Then it all stopped. Did someone trap them? Someone was doing some trapping, because there was the time I found four skinned carcassses in the gully on the national forest that functions as "Boneyard Gulch."

I wondered if the resent absence of coyote howling connected, alternatively, to the arrival of a couple of families in the neighborhood who embraced the whole neo-chicken-raising lifestyle, which includes the precept that Predators Must Die — also, neighbor dogs who encroach upon the Precious Fowl, even when said precious fowl are walking around on the margins of the county road.

But that is just my little area. Across North America, coyotes are expanding their territory. As Dan Flores writes in his new book Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History,
they have successfully urbanized: "In the Chicago metropolitan area, a whopping 61 percent of coyote pups survive to adulthood." But contrary to popular perception, they don't survive by eating Fluffy and Fido. (Of course, if opportunity presents itself, they will.) Golf course and city park geese and eggs are a favorite choice, along with urban deer and human trash.

His chapter "Bright Lights, Big City" collects a lot of research on urban populations, and some parts will surprise you. The best course, he suggests, is "to learn everything possible about living with the animals, then kick back, be cool, and enjoy them."

Meanwhile, some friends a couple of miles away have joined the chicken cult. M. and I stopped by a couple of days ago, and the husband was pouring concrete around the shed that he has converted to a chicken coop. He has built a stout wire enclosure with a concrete footing, and the top will be covered for both shade and protection from hawks. And I don't think that he is particular trigger-happy.

Our friends the wildlife rehabilitators, whose fawn enclosure would be a snack bar for coyotes and other predators, surround it with an eight-foot chain-link fence. But mountain lions and some coyotes and climb (bears prefer to smash their way in), so on top of that are three strands of barbed wire and one of electric wire. So far, so good over there.

That's what you have to do before you can "kick back, be cool, and enjoy them."

June 29, 2016

The Brave Bunny & the Fox Den That Maybe Wasn't

A branch got in front of the lens!
A few days ago I mentioned some encounters with a red fox and discovery of what I thought was her den.

One thing bothered me a bit: it seemed a little late in the year for small fox kits. The last time that we did a "wildlife taxi" run for a very young kit, it was April. 

But I had also camera-trapped kits out with Mom in mid-June.

But by the third week of June, would they be using the den? On the 24th, the camera snapped this cottontail rabbit in front of the opening. Now that was one brave bunny, or else perhaps the den was empty.

For one last try, I decided to bait the site with some scattered dry dogfood. There was certainly a lot of fox scat in the area—some fox(es) had been bombing favorite trailside rocks, as they do. And it was fresh.

I checked the camera this morning, the 29th. Someone new had arrived, a spotted skunk!

Spotted skunk, Eastern or Western?
There were several photos of it sniffing and posing in front of the boulder, but nothing showed it going in or out of the den. Was it just there for the dog kibble?

I cannot recall ever seeing one here before. They are smaller and more excitable than good ol' Mephitis mephitis, the ubiquitous striped skunk, and they climb trees, sort of.

Sources vary as to what separates Eastern and Western populations. Some say the Continental Divide. On the other hand, this Forest Service document says, "It does occur just east of the Rocky Mountains and into the foothills in Colorado." Foothills, scrub — that's us. So maybe the High Plains are the dividing line. (The species difference is delayed implantation in the Western spotted skunk.)

I also got photos of another neighbor dog and, twenty minutes later during his morning run, our Chesapeake, Fisher. I remember that he tore off running toward the den area, which I was trying to keep him away from. Either he smelled dry kibble at a hundred yards or, more likely, he smelled the other dog's recent presence.

Anyway, no sign of a fox. But I think that I will leave the camera up and see what happens. Maybe there will be another fox-skunk showdown. This one, with a striped skunk, was photographed nearby a few years back.

June 28, 2016

Bojon Pride

The license-plate holder reads, "Happiness is being Slovenian."

It was the big "Slivovitz" decal in the pickup's rear window that caught my eye. "Bojon" or "bojohn" is Southern Coloradan for a person of Slovenian descent, but also is applied to people with roots anywhere in Eastern Europe.

See also, "You might be from Pueblo if . . . "

Spotted yesterday on Union Avenue, itself now dignified as the Historic District — not part of what is traditionally considered Bojon Town, but not far away.

The neighborhood is not what it used to be, and the big topic is being a Superfund site and all the ramifications of that.

June 25, 2016

This Baby Beaver Makes Me Think of Grey Owl

Beaver kit



This is the time of year when M. and  I are back and forth to the little wildlife rehabilitation center not far away. One day last week it was to drop off cuttings of willow and lanceleaf cottonwood for the beaver they are rearing.

Gus peers into the beaver's enclosure. Is he jealous?
Gus the badger came earlier this spring. For a time he was the only animal — then came the beaver, some raccoons, a tiny bear cub, and the usual group of fawns (dropped off one of the last on yesterday, in fact).

He took time off from enlarging the den under a boulder in his enclosure to mumble at us through the fence between his home and the beaver's. Does he think that people should be bringing him treats (frozen mice) first?

I can't look at a beaver kit without thinking of Archie "Grey Owl" Belaney, though. An Englishman who re-invented himself as half-Apache, then lived among the Mohawks and married a Mohawk woman (wife #2 of three), he was born in East Sussex in 1888 and died in 1938 in Saskatchewan. He worked a number of years as a trapper, except for military service during World War One. As one biography notes,
Finally, Belaney became disgusted with the brutality involved in trapping. This disgust was triggered by the revulsion his new companion, a Mohawk woman named Gertrude Bernard, felt for the practice. When Bernard, otherwise known as Anahareo, adopted and raised a pair of beaver kittens whose mother had been killed in a trap, Belaney came to recognize that animals he had trapped for most of his life were highly intelligent and affectionate beings. After establishing a close bond with the kittens, Belaney vowed never to trap another beaver and to work to stop the wholesale slaughter of beavers.

Belaney henceforth devoted himself to writing of his experiences of the Canadian wilderness and of Native culture in order to forward his conservationist message and to provide an income to replace the one he had formerly earned by selling beaver pelts. Belaney’s vision was to establish wildlife sanctuaries throughout the North. He was also interested in prohibiting commercial traffic in animal skins to protect animal life and to prevent native culture from becoming commercialized and driven by European fashion trends. Belaney thought that Native peoples, instead of killing animals for profit, could work as conservationists and forest rangers in wildlife sanctuaries.
In his own writings Archibald Belaney presented himself as Grey Owl, a half-breed who was more Indian than white. The popularity of his writings led to extended lecture tours for Grey Owl in Britain and in North America. Grey Owl played up his Indianness for these lectures, darkening his hair and skin as was his custom and dressing in Native apparel. The Canadian woodsman, with his fringes, feathers and beads provided a thrilling sight on the streets and stages of England of the 1930s. (Although, ironically, some of Grey Owl’s Indian costume was actually bought in England, where it was sold as an exotic novelty from the colonies.) His message was thrilling to an audience jaded with and troubled by many of the traits of modern Western culture: "You are tired of civilization. I come to offer you, what? A single green leaf." 
Today, of course, he would be ripped up and hung out to dry by the Culture Police, his actual English identity spashed on websites like FakeIndians.

There were indeed some questions at the time as to how this "half-breed" could produce well-written books like The Men Of The Last Frontier, but people who wanted to believe, believed.

But his defenders can always point out that he did major work as a wildlife conservationist, both hands-on and as a writer and lecturer. (And there were few Apaches in 1920s Ontario and Manitoba to challenge his assumed identify, I suppose.) He was the first "celebrity conservationist" in Canada.

Some called him "the world's most famous Canadian." Here's a short video that mixes original footage of Grey Owl with clips from the 1999 biopic, in which he is played by Pierce Brosnan.


June 21, 2016

I Could See This Happening in My Colorado County

Utah federal wildland engine crews (Associated Press).
"Drones Deter Utah Firefighting Operation":
Wildfires have long attracted amateur photographers, and inexpensive drones equipped high resolution video cameras have proven a temptation to fly around fires. Larger drones have occasionally been used by firefighters -- with appropriate safety measures -- to conduct surveillance.

Firefighters worry a small plane or helicopter might collide with a hobbyist's drone, causing a crash. Firefighting aircraft are already operating under often-chaotic conditions in tight canyons and in low visibility, and pilots say drones can increase the risks.
And the drone operators would be saying, "I'm not causing a problem / I didn't know I was causing a problem. I'm just shooting video to put on Facebook and YouTube. I'm one of the good guys."

Maybe it's because they don't really think of themselves as pilots, and don't have pilot training. And they don't know how risk-adverse the feds are when it comes to fire-fighting deaths.

June 20, 2016

Venomous and Nonvenomous Links

In El Castillo cave, hand stencils join a red disk (not pictured)
that may be Earth's oldest cave art (Science/AAS)
Arizona wants to kill you. I thought the rattlesnakes were bad; now this: "Arizona Hiker Dies After Being Stung by 1,000 Bees."

Americans don't visit national parks anymore — that was the message a couple of years ago. (See the graph for early 2000s.) Now it's "The National Parks Have Never Been More Popular."  Free admission for the 100th anniversary helps, so does cheaper fuel. Or is this just one of those "fat is bad for you / fat is good for you" deals? Will M. and make it to Yellowstone this fall?

In case you missed it — although we are not talking about Chauvet-type art, still the evidence is that the Neanderthal people made art. And of course it's older than the Cro-Magnon stuff.