A Mountain Lion Prowls the Neighborhood

There’s a place along the Skagit River where I like to wander. Upstream and downstream, the river is lined with rural home sites, but in between there’s a small pocket of undeveloped land where relatively few people go. Compared to the wild lands surrounding nearby Mount Baker and the North Cascades, it’s a small area and nothing close to what most people would consider wilderness. A regenerating clear cut sits on a terrace above the water. Below it, the river flows through a shallow S-curve and a swampy area occupies the annual floodplain. Filled with a willow thicket, it’s a good place to hide, for me as well as many other animals.

I’ve made it a habit to explore the animal trails leading in, out, and through the floodplain. In the spring, when the water table is higher, Pacific tree frogs spawn in ephemeral pools. In fall, a black bear visits the riverbank to scavenge spawned-out salmon. All year, elk use it to move between pasture. I frequently see sign left by coyotes, and if I look hard enough I might be able to find the tracks and scat of bobcats. While I rarely see the live animals, exploring their haunts helps keep me connected to the other creatures that I share this place with. I have a spot within this area where I like to sit and listen, but sometimes the most interesting observations happen upon my approach and exit into this little pocket of wilder land.

Following an elk-maintained path down to the riverbank, I exited the forest onto a muddy side-channel, now mostly dry after a long, arid summer. The exposed mud and sand of late summer offer some of the best tracking opportunities of the year. I slowed my pace, eager to see which animals had moved through the area recently. In the semi-firm mud, I stumbled upon a set of feline tracks. The tracks were large, as wide as the palm of my hand with four clear toe prints. There were no claw marks and the sizable metacarpal pads were distinctively three-lobed at the base. These belonged to a mountain lion.mountain lion tracks in mud. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.mountain lion track in mud. track point towards right. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.mountain lion tracks in sand. tracks point towards notebook at bottom of photo. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.Curious to know more about its travels here, I followed the tracks along the edge of the river. The cougar followed the same general path I would have to move upstream; it stuck to the mud and driftwood on the edge of the willows. From the additional tracks I was able to find, the cougar continued along the riverbank for another hundred yards before I lost the trail in the adjacent thicket.

Based on my completely unscientific survey of mammal sign in the surrounding few acres, elk seemed to be the most abundant large animal here. They left many sets of tracks that moved perpendicularly from the river and into the deep cover provided by the willows. Was the lion stalking potential prey, or was it simply wandering through? Could a kill site be nearby? My imagination ran with the possibilities, but the dense vegetation would effectively hide any further evidence of the lion’s travels—unless I was lucky enough to stumble upon more sign.

Discounting that possibility as too unlikely, I left the river by following a narrow elk trail lined with salmonberry. The trail led, in a convoluted manner, to my sit spot where I sat for while to jot a few written notes and listen to the forest.

forest scene with taller trees in background and many small shrubs in foreground

To head home, I took a different yet familiar route along more elk trails. By this time, I wasn’t expecting to find any more sign of cougars (the duff was too well compacted and dry to hold their paw prints), but when I reached a fork in the trail I found evidence that at least one cougar had visited the area several times. Under low hanging branches of western red-cedar were four large scrapes. Each scrape was oblong and about a foot in length. Each had a small pile of debris at the base and three were accompanied by scat.

photo of mountain lion scrape in forest litter. notebook at bottom left is about 7 inches wide.photo of mountain lion scrape in forest litter. notebook at bottom left is about 7 inches wide.

Mountain lions are reported to urinate when they make scrapes, but I couldn’t detect any strong urine odor despite kneeling down for a better waft. Evidently, the cougar had been here several times, but not that day and perhaps not even the past week. It looked to be eating well when it was here though. One pile of scat was sizable and reflective of a diet heavy with meat.

I found no other mountain lion sign that day, but the scrapes and tracks caused my mind to again race with the possibilities of its life here. Did it make a kill nearby? Or, was it merely using the heavy cover as a secure place to rest between meals? I left with more questions than answers. This mountain lion’s story might be missing some pages, but sometimes the finer details of a good tale are best left to the imagination.

Gee Point

While browsing a map of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, I spotted what appeared to be a little used trail in a tract of the forest south of Skagit River. I quickly assessed whether it was worthy of my short list for exploration: Is it interesting and is it within cycling distance? With an affirmative yes to both criteria, I set off with my bike, Rocinante, to Gee Point.

I pedaled about eight miles south on the usually quiet Concrete-Sauk Valley Road. Only slightly rolling, this road was a good warm up for the rest of the day, which I knew would require a lot of climbing. Upon reaching the Finney Creek Road, I began a slow ascent through a mosaic of forested land—fields of stumps in recent clear cuts, thick second and third-growth stands, and occasionally a pocket of old growth forest.

view of forest area with maturing trees and recently clear cut areas

In contrast to younger forest, old-growth stands are characterized not only by large and tall living trees, but also by a complex, uneven canopy and a relatively high amount of dead standing snags and down trees. Even from a distance, the old-growth can be easy to spot once you learn to look for these signs.

view of forest with tall trees on horizon

Large trees with an uneven canopy reveal a stand of old-growth trees on the edge of a former clear cut.

Most of these old-growth trees were inaccessible from the road (perhaps the only reason they remain standing), but a few other giants were spared the chainsaw. Perhaps too dangerous to cut, or perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, or already dead, these trees stood as the last remnants of the forest that used to be.

bicycle leaning against bole of large dead tree

A few miles up the Finney Creek Road stands a giant dead Douglas-fir tree. These trees remind me that, with the exception of fire-maintained prairies and frequently flooded areas, nearly all of the Sauk and Skagit river valleys were covered with old growth trees.

Specific trees, like Sitka spruce, along Finney Creek also indicated this was often a wet place. Sitka spruce is typically found in areas with cool summers and high rainfall.

silhouette of Sitka spruce

The North Cascades, however, experience a bi-modal climate. Its cool, wet winters stand in start contrast to hot and droughty summers, and I was soon reminded of the region’s aridity even as I cycled underneath a thick canopy of needles. As the road transitioned between gravel and broken pavement, the dirt was so dry I kicked up a rooster tail of dust anytime I gained appreciable speed and each pickup truck left a cloud in their wake. (I saw about a dozen motor vehicles in this stretch of national forest. With the exception of one ATV, all were pickup trucks.)

By the time I reached FS Road 1720, I was within a few miles of Gee Point, but I still had most of the climbing ahead of me.

view of dirt road lined with thick forest

It’s a lot steeper than it looks.

The road, now completely dust and gravel but pleasantly lacking washboards, switch-backed through young, even-aged trees as it gained elevation. The terrain was changing as I climbed and signs of winter’s harshness began to appear. I crossed through an avalanche chute at least three times, which gave me an excuse to stop and catch my breath as I admired the power of snow to snap trees in half.

view of short trees caused by avalanche

Winter and springtime avalanches are a frequent occurrence in the North Cascades area, pruning any plant too tall or any too stiff to flex under their tremendous force. In summer, the brushy chutes are prime habitat for bears and I caught a glimpse of a black bear in this one.

The bright, hot sunshine and steepness of the road slowed my speed dramatically and I accumulated a sizeable escort of biting flies, but the views kept getting better, even with a slight haze from wildfire smoke.

dirt road leading toward mountain peak

To reach Gee Point though, I had to hike, so I locked Rocinante to a convenient fir tree at the end of the road and started walking. About a half mile in, I entered a beautiful, uncut forest dominated by large western hemlock and Pacific silver fir. At over 4,000 feet in elevation, which is not particularly high for the Cascades and in stark contrast to the tired burned out green of lower elevations, the forest floor had a noticeably fresh appearance.

The trail soon gained a ridge line and swung to the top of Gee Point where I was rewarded with a panoramic view.

 

The air, so calm and comfortably warm, easily could’ve induced a nap, but then I remembered that I was running low on water and time, so I reluctantly retraced my steps to the trailhead. After taking one final break to filter drinking water from Little Gee Lake, I bombed down the mountainside.

view of alpine lake and basin

On the rapid descent, I was glad to have wide 700x38cc tires to handle the rough surface and working brakes to check my speed. The ride home was quick, taking me half the time to ride back compared to riding there. When I reached home, my lower legs were caked in a fine powder. They felt worked too, but it was a good kind of tired.

A bear, wolves, and a moose carcass

Although they probably inhabit all of Katmai National Park, wolves are infrequent visitors to Brooks River, and seeing a wolf on the bearcam is a noteworthy occasion.

Late one evening at the end of June and about a dozen miles from Brooks River, I was lucky enough to see wolves compete with a bear for food along the middle reaches of Margot Creek.

At the beginning of the video, a blob in the middle of the creek represents the bear as it laid on the moose carcass. Two park rangers observed the same bear on the moose about seven hours before (no one witnessed how the moose died). When presented with a large animal carcass, bears will often bury it and/or sleep directly on it to protect it from other scavengers.

Not long after I started to watch the bear, a wolf emerged from the forest. It circled the bear, perhaps testing how tolerant or defensive the bear might be. Bears are quick, capable of outrunning any human, but they aren’t as fast as a wolf, and wolves know this. Therefore, the wolf was in little danger from the bear as long as it remained wary and stayed out of the bear’s reach. This didn’t stop the bear from charging the wolf several times though (only a few of which I was able to record). Despite the bear’s defensiveness, the wolf was persistent.

low resolution photo of a bear running at a wolf

A bear defends a moose carcass by charging a wolf who approached too closely. Photo courtesy of Anela Ramos.

Soon after the wolf appeared, the bear left the carcass and a second wolf arrived. The wolves didn’t appear to be in sufficient numbers or aggressive enough to chase the bear away. Perhaps the wolves were enough of an annoyance that the bear was unable to rest or the bear could’ve been chilled by lying on the carcass in the creek for several hours. Whatever the reason, after the bear left for good the two wolves quickly began to gorge on the moose. They focused their efforts on the moose’s abdomen, thoroughly eviscerating it within fifteen minutes.

grainy photo of two wolves eating a moose carcass in a creek

Two wolves tear into a moose carcass soon after a brown bear left it unattended. Photo courtesy of Anela Ramos.

Shortly afterward, stomachs bulging with moose entrails and meat (wolves can eat over 20 pounds of food in a single feeding session), the wolves sauntered into the forest.

Events like this happen in many places where wolves and bears share habitat, but in Katmai it might be more intense in spring and early summer before spawning salmon become abundant across the ecosystem. Bears often steal the show at Katmai, but wolves also prowl the landscape, following their own strategies for survival and sometimes competing directly with bears for food.

Return to Bearcam 2018

As many readers of this blog are aware, one of my favorite places in the world is Brooks River in Katmai National Park. There, about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, brown bears and salmon gather to create one of the most iconic scenes in America’s national parks.

many bears standing and fishing near a waterfall

Brooks Falls on a busy evening

 

I’m pleased to announce that through the generosity of explore.org, I’ve received a fellowship to work with Katmai’s bearcams, live streaming webcams of at Brooks River.

In conjunction with Katmai’s park rangers, I’ll write blog posts (which you can read on explore.org and Medium), chat frequently in the bearcam comments, and host live chats and play-by-play style broadcasts. I hope to make time to write about my other explorations on this blog as well.

Bearcam season is almost upon us. Webcam technicians are at Brooks River now, upgrading the webcams for a better live cam streaming experience. The first sockeye salmon should arrive at Brooks River in a matter of days and the bears will arrive soon after. This will be an exciting summer, so please join me here and on bearcam.

Pebble Mine Scoping Comments

Recently, I wrote about an impending threat to Bristol Bay’s salmon: Pebble Mine. The mine, if developed, will have significant effects across some the richest salmon and brown bear habitat left on Earth.

Salmon remain the ecological and cultural heartbeat of Bristol Bay. This mine will create billions of tons of semi-fluid toxic waste, which must be treated and prevented from entering the watershed indefinitely. Impacts from development are never completely restricted to the development’s footprint either. Roads fragment habitat and vehicle traffic displaces wildlife.

When I was born, Pacific and Atlantic salmon fisheries in the Lower 48 states were already significantly degraded. Nearly 40 years later, many salmon stocks in New England, California, Oregon, and Washington remain threatened or endangered. Only a small fraction of fish return to these areas compared to historic levels. I’m not about to let this story repeat itself in Alaska, nor should you. If the mine is developed, future generations will inherit its legacy, and I predict they won’t look upon us fondly for repeating the same mistakes that killed salmon runs in the past.

Please comment during the scoping period on the Army Corps of Engineers’ Pebble Mine Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and send those comments to your congressional representatives as well. Below you’ll find my scoping comments for the proposed mine. Feel free to copy and personalize them as you see fit. State your concerns now, so when the Army Corps of Engineers writes the EIS it will fully evaluate the mine’s impacts. Don’t let Bristol Bay’s salmon disappear because of our lust for copper and money.

The Corps is accepting comments through June 29, 2018.

salmon jumping at waterfall

Comment to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (submitted May 23, 2018):

The proposed Pebble Mine and its associated infrastructure poses a substantial threat to salmon and wildlife across the Bristol Bay region. Pebble Mine will straddle the watershed divide between two of Bristol Bay’s most important salmon spawning and rearing areas. I remain very concerned with the mine’s potential to negatively impact the area’s fisheries and wildlife through its wastewater, tailings, and infrastructure.

The EIS must answer one question: can Pebble Mine be developed without significantly degrading water quality and fisheries? The Corps’ has authority to deny permits under section 404 of the Clean Water Act if a proposed action will significantly degrade water quality and fisheries. This EIS should evaluate and quantify, not just identify, the mine’s potential to significantly degrade water quality and fisheries over short and long-term timespans. The EIS can begin this evaluation by appropriately defining its purpose.

A recent environmental impact statement from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Donlin Mine EIS, merely stated the purpose of the mine and the Corps’ authority to permit it (Donlin Mine Final Environmental Impact Statement – Chapter 1, pg. 1-4, 1-6). The purpose and need of the Pebble Mine EIS should be not be to simply define the project’s purpose (to mine ore) and define the Corps’ regulatory authority. It should be, as I propose, to:

  • Identify the short-term and long-term ecological effects of the proposed Pebble Mine,
  • Evaluate the mine’s and its infrastructure’s impacts on wildlife, including fish, in order to
  • Determine whether the mine’s safeguard can prevent all degradation to water quality, salmon habitat, and wildlife habitat indefinitely.

Even at very low concentrations, dissolved copper is particularly toxic to salmon, interfering with their ability to navigate and avoid predators. Its effects can manifest over minutes or hours and persist for weeks (Hecht 2007). Can the mine’s wastewater treatment plan adequately remove dissolved copper and prevent it from entering the watershed?

The mine’s tailings also pose a great risk to fish. Any accidental discharge from the pyritic tailings ponds will significantly degrade salmon habitat. Open pit mines, even within the United States, have a poor record containing their toxic tailings. Most tailings dam failures occur at operating mines and 39 percent of such failures worldwide occur in the United States, significantly more than in any other country (Rico 2008). Earthquakes and flooding hazards increase the risk of a tailings pond dam failure in the Bristol Bay region, and tailings ponds cannot be drained in the event of flooding or dam failure due to their toxic contents. The probability of a M8+ earthquake, for example, is low from year to year but remains real at any given time. Therefore, the EIS must also evaluate whether the tailings ponds can be engineered to withstand the greatest potential earthquakes and floods expected over the next several thousand years.

After the mine’s 20-year active phase, the mining company proposes to store toxic pyritic tailings indefinitely under water in the former open pit. This seems to create the potential for acid mine drainage to leach into the watershed over hundreds or thousands of years. What geologic studies suggest this is a feasible long-term plan to store the tailings? Even if subaqueous storage in the former open pit prevents the tailings from oxidizing, what safeguards will prevent dissolved copper and other toxic metals from entering groundwater to eventually oxidize and acidify as it nears the surface in a different part of the watershed?

The mine’s supporting infrastructure also creates risks for salmon and wildlife. Although salmon can navigate and migrate through streams with high sediment loads, they do not spawn in these habitats. Erosion of sediments into streams can irritate the gills of fish, smother eggs, alter feeding habitat for salmon fry, and bury spawning habitat. The effects of road construction and vehicle traffic (estimated by the mining partnership to be 35 round-trip truck trips per day) on wetlands and fisheries should also be evaluated.

The road servicing the proposed Amakdedori Port and the port itself will fragment what is now an unspoiled region of coastline on Cook Inlet. McNeil River State Game Sanctuary is one of the most important brown bear refuges on Earth, home to the largest annual congregation of bears yet observed. The road and port have the potential to displace bears moving to and from the McNeil River and Katmai National Preserve areas. Frequent work and dredging at the port area will also displace wildlife in an area that now experiences very little human activity. Other alternatives to transport ore should be evaluated.

Finally, the EIS needs to address more than the 20-year operational phase, because the mine’s waste legacy will threaten salmon for thousands of years. Tailings stored in the former open pit won’t become benign in the near future and wastewater must be treated indefinitely. Also, the possibility of an expanded mine operating over a long time frame increases the threat to salmon, other wildlife, and clean water.

Combined, the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers support about 40% of Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon. In 2017 alone, over 56 million sockeye salmon returned to Bristol Bay and over 19 million returning to Nushagak River, the largest in the river’s history. Salmon fishing in Bristol Bay is a billion dollar industry. While commercial fisheries generate the bulk of the salmon’s economic value, the area’s tourism is almost entirely based on salmon as well. Bristol Bay is home to dozens of premier sport fishing destinations, which harbor abundant populations of rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, arctic char, northern pike, lake trout, and grayling. The Bristol Bay area also hosts some of the densest populations of brown bears ever measured. Salmon are the most important food source for these animals, and the vast majority of people who visit Katmai National Park come to watch brown bears (Strawn 2015). After spawning, dead salmon fertilize the ecosystem with nutrients derived from the ocean, boosting the productivity of otherwise nutrient-poor area.

Considering the overwhelming economic and ecological value of salmon to the Bristol Bay region, Pebble Mine could displace thousands of workers and tourists if its safeguards fail to protect salmon. Without the energy and nutrients provided by consistently large runs of anadromous salmon, Bristol Bay’s freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems will quickly transition from one of richness to poverty. In many ways, this cycle is a positive feedback loop. The productivity of the area is reliant on large runs of salmon.

We’ve seen, repeatedly, salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest and New England decimated by habitat loss and pollution. Now we’re on the brink of repeating the same mistake in Bristol Bay. Pebble Mine should not be developed. It’s in the greatest interest of Bristol Bay’s fishing industry and culture, watersheds, salmon, and wildlife for the Corps’ EIS to fully evaluate the mine’s near and long-term effects. A failure to contain the mine’s toxic tailings and wastewater would directly impact two of Earth’s most productive salmon producing watersheds. The EIS must address potential groundwater exchange in the abandoned open pit, and whether the mining company can eliminate the risk of acid mine drainage. It must address whether the embankments for tailings ponds can withstand high magnitude earthquakes. It must address whether it’s even appropriate to build a mine whose wastewater will need to be treated indefinitely. It also must critically evaluate the mine’s supporting infrastructure, as it will potentially disrupt the world’s largest seasonal congregation of brown bears. In sum, the EIS must evaluate a worst-case scenario for salmon and other wildlife, since the possibility can’t be completely, or even reasonably, eliminated.

References:

Hecht, S. A., et al. March 2007. An overview of sensory effects on juvenile salmonids exposed to dissolved copper: Applying a benchmark concentration approach to evaluate sub-lethal neurobehavioral toxicity. National Marine Fisheries Service.

Rico, M., et al. 2008. Reported tailings dam failures: A review of the European incidents in the worldwide context. Journal of Hazardous Materials 152: 846–852.

Schindler D. E., et al. 2003. Pacific salmon and the ecology of coastal ecosystems. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 1(1): 31–37.

Strawn, M. and Y. Le. 2015. Katmai National Park & Preserve Visitor Study: Summer 2014. Social and Economic Sciences Research Center, Washington State University, Pullman, WA.

 

Addendum: My comment was apparently too long for the Corps’ comment portal on the Pebble EIS website. So if you use my comment in full, you might receive an error message. To work around it, you can attach the full comment as a PDF or Word document.

The Swarm

Recently, I found myself in the middle of an insect apocalypse as honeybees swarmed into my neighborhood.

Mile by mile, city after city, it moves; leaving in its wake a path of destruction.

Well, the event wasn’t quite like that, but I was still fascinated.

Swarming is a normal behavior for honeybees. In spring, when food is abundant, a colony may outgrow its home. Workers begin to produce new queens and the old queen departs with up to two-thirds of the colony. These swarms can contain thousands of individuals.

The swarm departs the old hive before they’ve found a new home. While scouts search for a suitable site, much of the swarm forms a cluster around the queen. This is when honeybees clump en masse.

swarm of honeybees clumped together on a tree branch

A honeybee swarm clumped together on a tree branch in Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Mark Osgatharp and Wikipedia.

Scout bees dance after they return to the swarm to communicate the direction and distance of potential home sites. Based on the vigorousness of the dance, the swarm then decides collectively on where to make their new home.

Unfortunately, I missed my opportunity for a bee beard, as the swarm had already found its new home by the time I saw it. The bees were just beginning to settle on the tree and move into the cavity between the fused trunks of two western red-cedars. As if queuing up to enter a stadium for a sporting event, the bees landed on the tree trunk and crawled inside. After a half hour, almost no bees remained outside the cavity.

swarm of bees at narrow entrance to a tree cavity

The swarm moves into the tree cavity. At this time, most of the bees are still outside it.

a few dozen bees at the narrow entrance to a tree cavity

Fifteen minutes later, most of the bees had entered the their new hive site.

Standing near the tree in shorts and t-shirt, bees flew all around me, yet only one made a mistake and ran into me (I wasn’t stung). While swarming, honeybees aren’t concerned with protecting larvae or honey stores. They’re concerned with finding a new home. As long as I didn’t make any aggressive attempts to disturb them, I could watch them quite safely.

Now I have some new neighbors. Thankfully, I don’t think they pose a threat to nuclear power plants.

Spring cycling along the North Cascades Highway

Last June, I wrote about cycling to Rainy Pass on the North Cascades Highway. For half the year, however, this road is closed as snow accumulation and avalanche danger, especially, become too great to keep it open. On weekends in spring, when road crews pause their work to clear snow and avalanche debris, the highway opens to bicyclists, so last Friday I took a rare opportunity to ride a car-free road. I found springtime fully fledged at low elevations in the North Cascades and winter’s legacy still holding a firm grip on the high country.

At low elevations, near the town of Newhalem, the weather and vegetation reflect mature springtime conditions. Hummingbirds seek nectar from red-flowering currant, deciduous plants are nearly fully leafed-out, and the ground is snow-free.

pink flowers on shrub

Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)

Heading east through Ross Lake National Recreation Area, the road climbs most steeply where it skirts the three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River. Even here, at elevations below 1000 feet, avalanches will sometimes crash across the road when winter conditions are right.

gully on mountainside

In February 2017, a large avalanche crossed the highway at this location, trapping a few dozen people on the other side for several days.

view of avalanche snow on road

An avalanche covering the road at the same place on February 25, 2018. Photo courtesy of Washington State DOT.]

After fifteen miles of riding, beyond Diablo Lake…

View of lake and mountains

…I reached the Ross Dam trailhead where the highway remained closed to cars.

gate across highway. sign reads "Active slide area proceed at your own risk" and "Stop"

Freed of the stress of close encounters with cars, cycling on car-free roads is wonderfully relaxing. Even as I remained reasonably alert for hazards and other cyclists, I was able to do stupid things I’d never try when sharing the road with motor vehicles—like riding down the centerline while recording video.

GIF of road and surrounded by mountains and trees

For me, the car-free environment also promotes stopping where anything catches my attention. Ascending higher into the mountains, I watched as the vegetation became less and less green. From a certain phenological perspective, I was moving backwards through time. By the time I reached 2,500 feet in elevation, most of the raucous birdsong of the Skagit lowlands disappeared and deciduous plants were just breaking bud.

green flowers at the end of a maple branch

Big leaf maple has already finished blooming at low elevations along the Skagit River, but it was still in full flower around 3000 feet in elevation along the highway.

Around highway mile 150, about 15 miles beyond the gate at Ross Dam and 4,000 feet above sea level, snow continuously covered the ground. It only became deeper as I pedaled farther. Just a couple of miles shy of Rainy Pass, where state road crews had halted their work for the week, snow remained five feet deep on the road.

bicycle leaning against snow bank with one lane of plowed highway

 

bicycle leaning on five-foot high snow bank

The end of the plowed road on May 4, 2018.

As it melts, the snow provides much needed water to streams and rivers in a mountainous region where summer drought is common. For many plants though, the deep snow hinders growth well into summer. On the day of my ride, temperatures hovered in the 60s˚ F, certainly well within the temperature tolerance of plants in the Cascades, but the deep snow keeps the underlying soil cold and dark. Under these conditions, most plants have to lie dormant until growing conditions improve. In the North Cascades, where snow accumulation is so deep and extensive, this set of conditions creates a perpetual spring season on the margins of the snow pack. This gives wildlife like deer and bears the opportunity to eat young and nutritious plants through July and August.

yellow-flowered lily

Yellow avalanche lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) are currently blooming in the Diablo Lake area. More commonly associated with meadows at higher elevations, these perennials have a short growing season. They begin to grow from a perennial bulb as soon, and sometimes even before, snow cover melts away to take advantage of ephemerally moist soils. By late July, the soils where this specimen grows will have become powdery dry, but at higher elevations this species will still be in flower.

new leaves at the end of small twigs in shaded forest

Late last July, long after I began to feast on blueberries at low elevations, blueberry plants in a snowy portion of Pelton Basin has just begun to leaf out. Late season berries are an important food source for bears this area.

Even during this ride into the middle elevations of the North Cascades (the highest non-volcanic peaks here top out over 9,000 feet tall), it was easy to see how snow exerts a significant influence on the landscape. The week of my ride, road crews reported nine feet of snow at Rainy Pass (el. 4,855’). In a couple of months, when tender plants like yellow avalanche lilies have withered and dried at lower elevations, I can ride up here again and find a microcosm of spring along the edge of the remaining snow.

view of snow-capped mountains and coniferous forest

The Worst Place in the World for a Mine

“This is the jewel in the crown of America’s fisheries resources – these salmon. If you don’t think this is worth saving, what is? To me, if you don’t draw a line in the sand here, there’s none to be drawn anywhere.”

Thomas Quinn
Professor, University of Washington and author of The Behavior and Ecology of Pacific Salmon and Trout

After more than a decade of controversy, Pebble Mine is inching closer to reality, and from the perspective of salmon, we couldn’t choose a worse place for an open pit mine.

red salmon swimming in shallow water

If you’re unfamiliar with Bristol Bay, its salmon, or Pebble Mine, please watch this 2012 overview on the Pebble Mine controversy, keeping in mind the mine’s currently proposed size and mineral processing plans are different than those outlined in the video.

Pebble Mine is a proposed open-pit copper, gold, and molybdenum mine at the headwaters of some of the last intact and most productive salmon habitat on Earth. Before any development of the mine can begin however, it must be permitted, and before it can be permitted, it must undergo an extensive environmental review. This is where we stand currently: the environmental impact statement (EIS) process for Pebble Mine has begun.

An EIS goes through several stages before a “record of decision” is finalized. Right now, the Pebble EIS is only at the scoping level. If you’re unfamiliar with the EIS process, public scoping is basically a brainstorming step. It’s the public’s opportunity to help define the breadth of the EIS to the lead agency, which in this case is the Army Corps of Engineers. (Read more about the scoping process.) During public scoping, if people don’t express concerns for the ecosystem-wide impacts of Pebble Mine and its infrastructure then the Corps’ EIS will not address them. Therefore, we must comment during the scoping period and demand that the alternatives in the EIS address the mine’s full environmental impact—which will sprawl across southwest Alaska and threaten the last great sockeye salmon run in North America.

The Bristol Bay area is exceptionally special and unique. Its landscape remains largely undeveloped and un-engineered. The major factors that decimated salmon elsewhere—habitat loss, dams, and pollution—are absent and salmon runs reach tens of millions of fish annually. Bristol Bay is where we can imagine the richness of fish that used to flood into the Columbia River or New England. It remains home to one of the most valuable and sustainable fisheries on Earth, one of the few remaining places where the full potential of the ecosystem is realized.

salmon jumping at waterfall

Salmon fishing boats in Naknek

Salmon fishing boats sit idle on a late winter day in Naknek, Alaska. The 2017 Bristol Bay salmon harvest was worth $670 million.

The Pebble EIS must address the mine’s potential, worst-case scenario effects on Bristol Bay’s salmon. A failure to contain the mine’s toxic tailings and wastewater would directly impact two of Earth’s most productive salmon producing watersheds. (The Kvichak River watershed, where part of the mine will be located, is home to the single largest salmon run in the world.) It must address potential groundwater exchange in the abandoned open pit, and whether the mining company can eliminate the risk of acid mine drainage. It must address whether the embankments for tailings ponds can withstand high magnitude earthquakes. It must address whether it’s even appropriate to build a mine whose wastewater will need to be treated indefinitely. It also must critically evaluate the mine’s supporting infrastructure, as it will potentially disrupt the world’s largest seasonal congregation of brown bears.

Map outlining Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds. Red star marks location of Pebble Mine.

Pebble Mine will straddle the divide between the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, two of Bristol Bay’s riches salmon producing areas.

By law, the EIS process must identify the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative. Common sense implies the least damaging alternative in this case is no mine at all, but the National Environmental Policy Act does not require agencies implement it. If we don’t demand the Corps critically evaluate the myriad impacts from the mine, then the Corps will merely focus on holes in the ground, “alternatives” of natural gas versus diesel to power the mine, how wide the service roads will be, and the size of the ports. The scope of the EIS will be so narrow to be useless for the protection of salmon. (For an idea of what this might be, look no further than the Donlin Mine Final EIS, whose purpose and need is: “produce gold from ore reserves from the Donlin deposit using mining processes, infrastructure, logistics, and energy supplies that are economical and feasible for application in remote western Alaska. The applicant’s stated need for the project is to provide economic benefits to Donlin Gold, Calista, and TKC shareholders; and to produce gold to meet worldwide demand.”)

I recognize a sad irony—or hypocrisy, if you prefer—of using a computer, which contains gold and copper, to type this post. I understand there’s a hole in the Earth, perhaps filled now with toxic water, where the metals in my machine were once trapped in rock. If you, like me, think Pebble Mine is irresponsible, then voice your opposition not only through the EIS process and with your votes at the ballot box (politicians who support Pebble Mine will not receive my vote), but also by reducing your consumption of products that use gold and copper. We, as consumers, need to say enough is enough. Our addiction to ever-higher levels of consumption brought us here. It’s not really sufficient to say “I’m opposed to Pebble Mine” then go out and buy the newest iPhone even though your old phone works just fine.

Everything we use, everything we make, has a cost. We’re at a point in history when surging human population growth and mass consumption are pushing ecosystems and species to their breaking point, creating an ecologically impoverished planet. In New England, wild Atlantic salmon are nearly extinct, and on the U.S. west coast only a tiny fraction of Pacific salmon return compared to historic levels. Don’t kid yourself: This sad story can repeat itself in Alaska.

We lose salmon one impassible culvert, one dam, one levee, one mine at a time, leaving us to suddenly wonder, where did all the fish go? In Bristol Bay we have a chance, maybe our last chance, to save large runs of wild salmon. If the mine is built and its proposed safeguards fail, we risk losing a significant portion one of the world’s last great sustainable fisheries. Future generations won’t be celebrating our decision if we develop this mine. They’ll criticize us for not learning from the mistakes of the past. Are we really willing to let hyper-consumerism and the promise of short-term profits potentially destroy the last great salmon run?

It looks like we’re on track to do so, unless enough people step up and say no.

Through June 29, 2018, you can submit scoping comments on the Pebble Mine EIS. I’ll share my scoping comments in a forthcoming post when they are finished.

Update May 23, 2018: My scoping comments can be found here.

Hibernation Hangover

In Glacier National Park, Montana, a black bear has emerged from hibernation, but hasn’t left his tree cavity den.

According to the park website, this bear was first seen on March 23. Since then, the black bear, who is male, has mostly rested in the tree cavity. After a long winter of hibernation, you might assume a bear would be eager to get moving and find something to eat, but bears often don’t leave their denning site for days, sometimes weeks, after they emerge in the spring.

A bear fresh out of the den isn’t the same bear it will be in May. Immediately after emerging from their dens, bears are active but neither hungry nor particularly thirsty. In one of the first studies on the physiology of hibernating bears, researchers found captive bears ignored food and water for up to two weeks and some bears didn’t begin to eat and drink normally for three weeks after they emerged from their dens. One grizzly bear didn’t even urinate for two days after it emerged. (In contrast, during another study a black bear in the fall urinated copiously, producing eight to sixteen liters of urine per day.)

This annual life stage of springtime bears has been described as “walking hibernation.” Compared to summer and, especially, early fall, bears in walking hibernation are hypophagic. They actively ignore food and drink little water while still surviving on body fat. During walking hibernation, bears experience an internal transition from full hibernation to a more active physiology. Research on brown bears in Sweden, which I wrote about previously, has found the body temperature and metabolic rate of brown bears doesn’t stabiliz until 10 and 15 days, respectively, after den emergence and their heart rate doesn’t stabilize for another month.

Graph that shows the timing of several variables affecting the start and end of hibernation in bears.

These graphs chart the relationship between physiological parameters of brown bears in Sweden. Den entry (left column) and exit (right column) are indicated by time zero (the green vertical line) to determine the sequence of physiological events. SDANN is the standard deviation of heart rate variability over five minute intervals. It was used a proxy measure of metabolic activity. A red line denotes when a variable was decreasing, while a blue line indicates when a variable was increasing, with the number of days from the entry/exit indicated. From Drivers of Hibernation in the Brown Bear and reposted under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International License.

bear feet sticking out of hole in tree trunk

The transition from hibernation to fully active includes lots of resting. Screen shots from the Glacier National Park bear den live stream.

black bear in tree cavity

Possibly because their metabolism and heart rate remain somewhat low, many bears seem to loathe leave their dens, at least right away. So, it’s not uncommon for bears to remain near their denning site while their bodies transition back to more active levels.

The bear at Glacier will leave its tree cavity den relatively soon. His hunger will grow as his metabolism returns to active levels. His libido will increase too, and he’ll begin to prowl the land for females in estrous (the mating season for black and grizzly bears peaks in late spring). Compared to other stages in their annual cycle, less is known about the first few weeks of life for bears after they emergence from hibernation. It is rare for us to witness a bear’s life at this time. With webcams and other digital tools like GPS collars, we’re gaining a greater depth of knowledge about many wild animals. Glacier’s webcam provides a rare opportunity to observe a bear shortly after it has emerged from hibernation. Like most bears right now, it remains in a bit of a hibernative hangover.

The Difference Between Brown and Grizzly Bears

For my book on Brooks River’s bears and salmon, I find myself digging deep into natural history and ecology of brown bears. Sometimes I uncover research that challenges my long held assumptions. Take the difference between brown and grizzly bears, for example; something I often said was mostly based on geography and diet. As I wrote for Katmai’s website:

All grizzly bears are brown bears , but not all brown bears are grizzly bears. Grizzly bears and brown bears are the same species (Ursus arctos), but grizzly bears are currently considered to be a separate subspecies (U. a. horribilis). Due to a few morphological differences, Kodiak bears are also considered to be a distinct subspecies of brown bear (U. a. middendorffi), but are very similar to Katmai’s brown bears in diet and habits.

Even though grizzlies are considered to be a subspecies of brown bear, the difference between a grizzly bear and a brown bear is fairly arbitrary. In North America, brown bears are generally considered to be those of the species that have access to coastal food resources like salmon. Grizzly bears live further inland and typically do not have access to marine-derived food resources.

These geographic and dietary distinctions seem simple enough. However, there is little scientific evidence to support it. Both brown bears and grizzly bears exist, but the differences between them aren’t what I had long assumed.

bear grazing on vegetation with travertine and forest in background

A grizzly bear grazes on springtime vegetation near Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.

bear in water

A brown bear at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. (NPS Photo)

Although North American brown, grizzly, and Kodiak bears belong to the same species, Ursus arctos, bear taxonomy underwent many revisions before scientists reached this conclusion. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, taxonomists frequently lumped and split brown/grizzly bears into many different species and subspecies. The separation peaked in 1918 with the publication of C. Hart Merriam’s Review of the Grizzly and Big Brown Bears of North America in which Merriam proposed around 80 (not a typo) species and subspecies of North American brown bears. Taxonomists like Merriam relied on morphological characteristics that could be seen or observed to classify living and extinct organisms. Warm-blooded animals that have hair, breathe air, and produce milk for their offspring are mammals, but warm-blooded and air-breathing animals that lay eggs, have feathers and toothless beaks are birds. These are greatly simplified examples, I realize, and such tidy and clear distinctions aren’t necessarily common in nature. They often become more difficult to resolve at the genetic and species level, especially in cases of hybridization or when taxonomic distinctiveness is based on subtle physical differences.

Merriam’s nuanced classifications of brown and grizzly bears were based on differences in skull morphology and dentition, characteristics he examined painstaking detail. Among taxonomists, Merriam was a splitter. On southeast Alaska’s Admiralty Island alone, he classified five distinct species . In the Katmai region, Merriam described two species, Ursus gyas for the Alaska Peninsula and Ursus middendorffi for Kodiak Island , as well as others for bears living in the Cook Inlet area and on the Kenai Peninsula.

If you think his classifications of brown/grizzly bears was a little over the top, you’re not alone. Merriam foreshadowed opposition to his conclusions when he wrote in his Review, “The number of species here given will appear to many as preposterous . To all such I extend a cordial invitation to . . . see for themselves.” And they did. Most of the species or subspecies described by Merriam were later regarded as local variations or individual variants. While all of Merriam’s species have since been lumped together as U. arctos, in the mid 1980s as many as nine extant or extinct subspecies of U. arctos were recognized in North America , but the only names for North American brown bear subspecies in still widely used are U. a. horribilis, the grizzly bear, and U. a. middendorffi, the Kodiak bear. Recently, however, even these classifications have come under question.

In hindsight, it’s easy to scoff at Merriam’s conclusions. Could there really be dozens of brown bear species in North America? Within the methodologies and knowledge of his era, his results aren’t that far fetched. Little was known about the behavior, growth rates, ecology, and population dynamics of North American bears in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Given access to the same tools and information as modern taxonomists, Merriam may have discovered grizzly and brown bears can’t be so easily divided by differences in skull and tooth shape.

Ursus arctos is one of the most widely distributed mammal species on Earth. Historically, brown bears were found from the British Isles south to North Africa and east across northern and central Asia to Alaska and most of western and central North America. Two to three million years ago, they split from a common ancestor shared with black bears . The oldest brown bear fossils are from China and date to about 500,000 years ago. By 250,000 years ago, they spread to Europe. During the last 100,000 years of the Pleistocene, bears immigrated and emigrated across much of the northern hemisphere as climate and habitat dictated. When continental ice sheets advanced, available habitat shrunk and bears became isolated into separate populations. When the ice receded, bears dispersed into the new territory. Beginning around 70,000 years ago, the first brown bears moved into North America. While we know when and where bears lived and live from fossils and historical records, this doesn’t necessarily deduce the genetic relatedness of modern populations.

Phylogeography is a branch of phylogeny, the evolution of an organism or group of related species or populations. As such, phylogeography traces the distribution of genetic variation through time and space. In this regard, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is especially useful to track female ancestry. MtDNA  resides in the mitochondrion, a cell’s powerhouse, and is inherited from the mother only, unlike nuclear DNA which is a recombination of genes from both parents. According to mtDNA analysis, there is no divide between brown and grizzly bears based on an animal’s relationship to the coast or marine food sources, nor does it support the status of U. a. horribilis or U. a. middendorffi or any other historical subspecies in North America. The only historic classification that holds is at the species level—Ursus arctos. Instead, matrilineal ancestry suggests brown bears in North America fall into three main clades.

  • Mainland Alaska, Kodiak Archipelago, and northwest Canada.
  • ABC Islands (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) in southeast Alaska.
  • Southwestern Canada (Alberta, British Columbia) and the lower 48 States.

Clades are groups of organisms evolved from a common ancestor and consequently share a genetic relationship. The three North American clades, as well as others in Europe and Asia, are believed to be descended from brown bears living in isolated populations in Asia during the late Pleistocene . Since then, the mtDNA has remained geographically separated due to the tendency of female brown bears to be homebodies. Female brown bears are philopatric. They tend to remain near or have partly overlapping home ranges with their mother and do not rapidly invade areas already occupied by other brown bears . This can prevent or at least greatly slow mtDNA from mixing into other bear populations, even long after significant barriers like ice sheets have disappeared.

screen capture of Earth with clades of bears outlined.

Approximate range of brown bear clades in North America based on mtDNA. Different clades are represented by horizontal and vertical lines. The solid red circle marks the location of brown bears on the ABC islands.

Bears on the ABC Islands are the most genetically distinct of all Ursus arctos. Their mtDNA aligns them more closely to polar bears than to other brown bears , a genetic uniqueness most likely resulting from interbreeding with a small number of isolated polar bears at the end of the last ice age. Since then, female brown bears on the islands have not spread their polar bear genes to the mainland. Bears in British Columbia, Alberta, and into the lower 48 represent another lineage who arrived in Alaska around the same time as the ancestors of the ABC bears. During a warm interglacial period, some of these bears moved south into the mid continent before the ice advanced again and sealed them off from their brethren to the north.

All other brown bears in northwest Canada and Alaska, including those on Kodiak, belong to a clade that dispersed from Asia in two separate waves. Those in northwest Canada arrived first, perhaps as early as 33,000 years ago. Bears now occupying mainland Alaska represent the last pulse of ursine migrants onto the continent, arriving just before rising sea levels flooded the Bering Strait and closed the land bridge between Asia and North America. Excluding the ABC islands, all Alaskan brown bears belong to this pedigree, which stretches from northwestern Canada and Alaska west across Russia and into Europe and includes most of the world’s brown bears.

The results from mtDNA only convey information about the maternal line, however. MtDNA cannot trace genes spread exclusively by male brown bears, so it underrepresents the role of males in gene flow. Male brown bears have larger home ranges and disperse away from their mother’s home range more readily than females, especially during their first few years of independence. Males do carry one important bit of DNA that females don’t—the Y chromosome. Like mtDNA, it is only inherited from one parent, but unlike mtDNA it can only be passed from father to son, making the Y chromosome an important marker to trace paternal gene flow and diversity.

While mtDNA shows particularly strong clade differentiation  across the entire range of Ursus arctos, geographic variation in the Y chromosome of brown bears is much shallower . According to analysis of the Y chromosome, no deep genetic or geographical divergences could be found from bears in Eurasia or North America. Brown bears on the ABC islands and mainland Alaska, for example, share closely related haplotypes (a group of genes inherited from a single parent ) found in the Y chromosome. Even brown bears from populations as separate as Norway and the ABC islands have been reported to carry highly similar Y chromosomes . Male genes, therefore, flow across clades.

infographic showing hypothetical inheritance of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome through three generations of bears.

Within mammals, mitochondrial DNA can only be inherited through the maternal line. The Y chromosome is only passed from father to son. MtDNA tends to stay within genetically related clades because female bears are philopatric. Male bears, due to their inclination to disperse farther and have larger home ranges than females, can spread Y chromosomes over bigger areas. Unlike nuclear DNA, neither mtDNA nor the Y chromosome are a mix of maternal and paternal genes.

This isn’t to imply male bears from the Yukon immigrate to Europe or vice versa, just that males are more apt to wander and set up home ranges well away from their mother. If female brown bears, due to their philopatry, differentiate a population’s genetics over time, then male bears homogenize it. In other words, female brown bears like to stay in familiar terrain, but males often spread their seed far and wide.

With evidence of geographically isolated clades through mtDNA but not in the Y chromosome—can we still divide brown bears into biologically significant units? Even though genetic research adds another dimension to our understanding of wildlife, morphology remains an important way to differentiate species, and subspecies don’t necessarily need to be from separate or unique ancestry to be worth protecting. Grizzly and brown bears still exist, just not along a clean geographic and dietary divide. Where we draw the line is less important than the overall conservation of bears. Populations of brown bears—whether they are from Katmai, Kodiak, or Yellowstone—remain ecologically and culturally special no matter their genetic distinctiveness. Bears in Yellowstone are geographically and (at least currently) genetically separated from other “grizzlies.” Kodiak bears aren’t genetically distinct enough to justify them as a separate clade even though they have been isolated from mainland bears for approximately 12,000 years. Hypothetically speaking, if bears are extirpated from Kodiak or Yellowstone then they won’t be coming back and a valuable repository of genetic diversity will be lost forever.

The line between a brown bear and a grizzly, as I used to define it, was always tenuous at best. (Should grizzlies in interior Washington, British Columbia, and Idaho—who may have fed on salmon before runs in the Columbia and Snake watersheds collapsed—be considered brown bears?) Now through DNA analysis we know Ursus arctos cannot be so arbitrarily split based on their geographical closeness to the ocean. It’s still ok to say grizzly, Kodiak, or brown bear—the names can still be incredibly powerful and useful—but maybe the only truly accurate name for them is Ursus arctos.

References:

Bidon, T. , et al. Brown and polar bear Y chromosomes reveal extensive male-biased gene flow within brother lineages. Mol. Biol. Evol. 2014. 31(6): 1353-1363.

Davidson, J., et al. Late-Quaternary biogeographic scenarios for the brown bear (Ursus arctos), a wild mammal model species. Quaternary Science Reviews. 2011. 30:418-430.

Rausch, R. L. Geographic Variation in size in North American brown bears, Ursus arctos L., as indicated by condylobasal length. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 1963. 41(1): 33-45.

Schwartz, C.C. et al. “Grizzly Bear,” in Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. 2nd Edition. Editors Feldhamer, George A., Bruce C. Thompson, and Joseph A. Chapman. John Hopkins University Press. 2003.

Talbot S. L., et al. Genetic characterization of brown bears on the Kodiak Archipelago. Final Report to Kodiak National Wildife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006.

Waits L. P., et al. “Genetics of the bears of the world.” In Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Compiled by Christopher Servheen, Stephen Herrero, and Bernard Peyton. IUCN/SSC. 1999.

Waits, L. P., et al. Mitochondrial DNA Phylogeography of the North American Brown Bear and Implications for Conservation. Conservation Biology. 1998. 12(2): 408-417.