February 27, 2024

Lettuce Get Down to Business

Photo from 1918 of the Mahon Ranch, west of Buena Vista.
Pictured are Martha Mahon, her daughter Cassie and Cassie’s husband, George Fields, with crates of head lettuce. Courtesy of Buena Vista Heritage Museum.

An article in the SkiHi News from Grand County, Colo, (Motto: 'The wolves are here, now where are the bucks?") notes the area's success with growing lettuce in the 1920s.

When some of the first settlers arrived in Granby, they realized the sunny days and cool nights were perfect for growing lettuce. The humble lettuce thrived in the mountainous landscape. . . . The Moffat Railroad gave local lettuce producers access to big cities like Salt Lake City. Granby was said to produce high quality lettuce and there are anecdotes that New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bragged of “Granby Lettuce” on the menu, according to the Grand County Historical Association.

Not just Granby. Back before the time when all fresh vegetables in the typical supermarket came from California, southern Arizona, and northern Mexico, other parts of Colorado were also producing lettuce. 

It was exported from the Wet Mountain Valley [Custer County], from Eagle County, and from Chaffee County, among other locales. The photo above was taken near Buena Vista.

All these locales had higher elevations (6000–8000 feet, typically), irrigation, and in most cases, rail access. A 2014 article in Colorado Central examines this now-defunct commercial agriculture.

By 1922 the Salida growing district was making plans to get in on the lettuce boom with more than 40 people becoming members of the Colorado Cooperative Lettuce Association in the town. Headquarters for the association was in the Unger store and Sid Burleson was a leader, The Salida Mail reported.

That same year there were about 1,500 acres of lettuce being grown in Buena Vista. Westcliffe [Custer Co.] had 800 acres, the Hardscrabble district [Custer Co.] 400 acres, the Divide district [Teller Co.] 300 acres and the San Luis district [Costilla Co.] 500. It was reported in the Chaffee County Republican that Buena Vista shipped 163 cars in 1922, followed by Florence [Fremont Co.] with 85, the Yampa district [Routt Co.] with 75 and Avon [Eagle Co.] with 73.

Since Hardscrabble is about 14 miles from Florence, that may be where the lettuce growers hauled their crop to the railroad. 

The 1941 WPA Travel Guide for Colorado, from the Federal Writers Program, noted that in northeastern Custer County, "fields on the steep [?] slopes grow potatoes, lettuce, and celery." Of Buena Vista it says, "Lettuce Day, combined with a rodeo, is celebrated annually in September." Granby, as noted above, and Alamosa are also described as lettuce-growing areas, as are Divide [Teller Co.] and La Veta [Huerfano Co.].

This production nose-dived by the 1940s. There was World War 2, of course, but as best I can tell, the big factor was improved refrigerated railcars making it easier for larger-scale West Coast growers to send massive amounts of lettuce etc. eastward. 

And with the growing more concentrated in fewer areas, a problem like a plant virus there rolls clear to the Eastern Seaboard as well. From 2023: "Farmers seek rebound after floods, virus hit lettuce crop."

Things were challenging enough for lettuce growers in Monterey County’s [California] Salinas Valley before Mother Nature dealt a one-two punch in this year’s storms.

Farmers in 2022 had suffered an estimated $150 million in crop losses as impatiens necrotic spot virus—a destructive plant disease spread by thrips—moved from field to field.

Then this year, vast flooding from atmospheric storms damaged multiple crops, with lettuce growers suffering an additional $54.4 million in losses, according to figures released by the Monterey County agricultural commissioner.

Most of those Colorado lettuce acres went to hay and cows — or in the case of Eagle County, ski condos. After all, cows are plant-based too.

February 25, 2024

Wolverines to be Reintroduced to Colorado

Colorado is looking to bring back the wolverine, thus successfully "retconning" that Cold War movie hit Red Dawn. (Supposedly set in Colorado, it was actually filmed in and around Las Vegas, New Mexico,  just like the Longmire TV series decades later.)

This, not C. Thomas Howell, is a wolverine. (Photo by Chris Stermer/
California Department of Fish and Wildlife.)

According to Colorado Public Radio

Colorado’s wildlife specialists are nearly finished with updates to a plan that could return a carnivorous mammal to the Centennial State. 

Aside from the first five letters of their name, wolverines have little in common with wolves, the species that draws the majority of headlines for wildlife management. One thing they do have in common is that they were once prolific in the West. 

“Wolverine was largely extirpated from the Western United States by about the 1930s,” Jeff Copeland, director at the Wolverine Foundation in Idaho said. “We don't know, necessarily, exactly why. It probably had to do with at the turn of the century there was heavy livestock grazing in the Western United States — heavy enough that it tended to displace other large ungulates — deer, elk, moose, sheep — animals that are very important to the wolverines, particularly as winter diet. Plus, there was widespread, wholesale poisoning campaigns going to keep predators away from livestock.” 

At least wolverines won't be as "sexy" as wolves. There probably will not be any wolverine-viewing bus tours. You won't hear people bragging on their wolverine X dogs, since they are mustelids (like weasels), not canids.

Probably won't see Governor Polis holding a photo op either.

"After the movie was released in 1984, The National Coalition on Television Violence deemed Red Dawn 'the most violent movie ever made.'" The NCTV obviously never met a real wolverine.

February 15, 2024

Pygmy Owl, Long-Distance Lizard

Pygmy Owl, abducted by aliens and examined.
A game warden called from up in the county seat. Someone had brought him a Northern Pygmy-Owl (correct ID on his part) that was "in danger" on a highway. 

We met on a side street, and he transferred the owl to my carrier. And there was a second passenger, a small lizard. Apparently the owl was about to eat dinner when the well-meaning two-legged came long. 

It was kind of astonishing that a lizard would be out and about. The sun was shining, but air temps were only in the mid-40s F at best. (Did the owl find it on warm asphalt?) The reptile seemed moribund, but then the light was fading at 7800 feet, and the air was cooling fast.

The Raptor Center in Pueblo was closed, of course. I called the director's cell phone. She said to keep the bird over night, give it a shallow dish of water, bring it down in the morning.

This morning I checked on the owl, which seemed alert and on its feet, poured a cup of coffee, and hit the road. 

On arrival, the owl checked out as healthy and unharmed.  "Take him home," the director said. I decided to take her literally.

But the lizard lived! I had not seen the lizard this morning and assumed that the owl had eaten it. But when I straightened out the towels in the carrier, there it was, barely moving one leg. Too cold, I am sure. A volunteer lifted it into a small box and went to place it somewhere warm.

After putting 116 miles on the Jeep, I had these results.

1. One [sagebrush?] lizard was relocated to the outskirts of Pueblo, into what should be a compatible habitat. Reptile brain says, "Umm warm." Missing tail tip probably not noticed.

2.  One Pygmy-Owl had a missing time/abduction experience but ended up about two miles away from where it had been. Its new location, however, features four birdfeeders, consequently, a prey-rich environment. Maybe we'll see it again.

What sets Pygmy Owls apart is that they are daytime hunters. Kind of like sharp-shinned hawks, they have short wings, long tails, and will try to snatch passerine birds off the feeder tray.  

Most owls have asymmetrically placed ears as well as flattened facial discs around the eyes. Both of these features are adaptations that give them better hearing. Interestingly, Northern Pygmy-Owls lack these features, and this may be an outcome of their diurnal habits and greater reliance on vision. All About Birds.
So releasing it in the day time was easy to do. Once it saw blue, it flew.

February 05, 2024

So Who Will Hack the Wolf GPS Data?

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has now published a GPS map for Colorado wolves.

Understand that while every wolf wears a GPS collar, including the ones that wandered in to North Park and were darted, collared, and released -- and including the 15 new ones coming in -- the magic map does now show where they are right now.

It shows what drainage they have been in lately. The website says,

  • Currently, the collars are programmed to record a position every four hours. 

  • Once four locations have been recorded, the packet of four locations is then transmitted via satellite to CPW biologists. 

  • The frequency of both position recording and transmission of the data can be delayed by a number of factors such as dense cloud cover, closed terrain, etc. 

  • By looking at the data, CPW staff can learn where wolves have been, but they cannot tell where wolves are at a current point in time, nor can they predict where the wolves will go. 

  • To protect the wolves, specific GPS data will not be shared.

"Specific GPS data will not be shared. "

Um, yeah.  Governments are so good at keeping data secure. Now who would want up-to-the-minute data? 

Most people's thoughts will probably go straight to some clandestine wolf-killer, some figure straight out of a Charlie Box wilderness-thriller novel.  

But follow the money. I remember how in the 1980s, as commercial rafting developed on the Arkansas River and the state took over recreational management, there were all these contentious meetings over regulation, which boiled down to

    a) Early arrivals in commercial rafting wanted to keep out the competition.

    b) Private rafters and kayakers did not want to be forced into the eddies by the commercial outfits.

    c) Anglers wanted to be left alone at dawn and dusk, at the very least.

You will make money if you
know where I am (CPW photo).
In 1989, the year after the big fires, M. and I passed through Yellowstone NP. We casually parked our van at the Slough Creek Campground. I fished a bit in Slough Creek (saw an otter!) and the Lamar River, where I could step from elk skeleton to elk skelton, after the big die-off in the 1988–89 winter.

We came back in the 2000s after wolf reintroduction. Slough Creek campsites had to be reserved months in advance. Every highway pull-out in the Lamar Valley was full of surly shoulder-to-shoulder observers with expensive optics: spotting scopes and telephone lenses. Tour busses with wolves painted on them lumbered up and down the road — like this one.

If the wolves reproduce — and if they move east into Rocky Mountain National Park — that will be Colorado's future too. Wolves as spectacle. 

As with rafting on the Arkansas, there will be a struggle for regulations that give some operators an advantage over their competitors.

And speaking of "advantage," if you were a "wolf-tour guide," what could you do with GPS coordinates as to just where the wolves were that day?