A Plant with Teeth

My neck of the woods isn’t like the Chihuahuan Desert, where nearly everything that photosynthesizes seems like it evolved to grab, shred, tear, puncture, and stab you (just try an off trail hike at Carlsbad Caverns National Park if you want the experience and say hello to the lechuguilla while you do). Nor is my habitat like the poison-oak dominated slopes found in coastal California where a careless walk through brush can leave you itchy for weeks. No, not like that. Heck, I don’t even need to worry about ticks.

Along the Skagit River, devil’s club and a couple of species of invasive blackberry will stop you in your tracks with their numerous, stout thorns. Besides those few, the list of plants to avoid drops off fairly quickly, with a notable exception. One of the most ecologically interesting and menacing members of my plant community is a nondescript perennial that’s easy to ignore until it’s too late.

Lots of plants are fuzzy with fine hair. Some plants, like common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), utilize hairs on their leaves and stem like sunscreen and to make grazing just a little uncomfortable for herbivores. Some hair is just there, perhaps not serving a specific adaptive purpose, or not one that we know currently. But one plant in my forest, Urtica dioica or stinging nettle, has turned their hairs up to 11.

Nettle is rather inconspicuous. It has oppositely-arranged, coarsely-toothed, and heart shaped leaves. Its flowers grow in small, string-like clusters from the leaf axils and lack petals, typical for a wind pollinated plant, but what it lacks in showiness it makes up in its ability to inflict pain.

group of densely growing plants with toothed, heart-shaped leaves

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

I learned about stinging nettle as a young teenager scrambling up a creek bank in Pennsylvania. The bank was steep and muddy. I needed just a little extra support to prevent me from sliding down. Lacking a tree to hold, I grabbed a group of herbaceous stems and immediately realized I had made a mistake. I made it up the bank, but the palms of my hands burned for the rest of the day. I was just introduced to nettle’s defense against mammalian herbivores.

Stinging nettle is equipped with tiny, but potent, stinging hairs. On the plants in my area, the hairs are particularly concentrated on the stems, flowers, petioles, and leaf undersides. Each hair is tipped with a small, fragile bulb that breaks off when contacted to expose a needle-like tip that, hardened by calcium carbonate and silica, readily injects a cocktail of chemicals into your skin. The stinging sensation is immediate and long lasting.

close-up view of underside of stinging nettle leaf showing stinging hairs, petiole, and leaf veinsclose-up view of young stinging nettle stem with many stinging hairs

Among other chemicals, the juice inside a hair contains histamine, which is an inflammatory compound (we take antihistamines to inhibit the affects of allergic reactions), and serotonin, which constricts blood vessels and acts as a neurotransmitter. In sum, it is designed to irritate.

Why the need for this defense? Nettle leaves are nutritious and high in vitamins A and C as well as protein. They would likely be a sought after commodity by deer and other browsing mammals if it weren’t for their stinging hairs.

We can neutralize the sting by drying or steaming the leaves. Steamed, the leaves taste as mild as spinach and they make a decent pesto.

 

The rash you get from poison ivy is an accident of evolution. The oily liquid, urushiol, which causes the itchy dermatitis on us doesn’t affect other North American mammals or birds. Your dog won’t get it. Deer eat the leaves. Many bird species relish poison ivy fruits for food. The stinging hairs on nettles tell a different story. They are purposefully indiscriminate against all mammals.

Plants, like all life forms, experience a wide variety of limiting factors. Stinging nettle may have evolved one way to dissuade herbivorous mammals, but the same defense doesn’t deter insects or snails. The stinging hairs don’t work on parasitic fungus or microorganisms either, nor on anything that attacks and eats its perennial rhizome. But, its stinging hairs work, quite well in fact for their evolved purpose—discouraging mammals from eating it.

Despite the pain nettle can inflict, I look forward to seeing it sprout each spring. It gives me an opportunity to reflect upon why it needs to evoke such discomfort in mammals. Stinging nettle is a plant with teeth. It fights back.

Bristol Bay at Risk

Imagine a place where the watershed is un-engineered, where the ecosystem’s productivity and potential is fully realized. It produces half the world’s wild sockeye salmon and is home to more brown bears than people. Then imagine that greed for minerals, driven by mass consumption, threatens it.

Alaska’s Bristol Bay is that place.

GIF of underwater footage of adult coho salmon

Bristol Bay is a 42,000 square mile (1.87 million hectare) watershed that encompasses the southeast corner of the Bering Sea. Ringed by the Kuskokwim Mountains to the north and the Aleutian Range to the south and east, the area is almost wholly undeveloped. The watershed includes two of the nation’s largest national parks (Katmai and Lake Clark), three giant national wildlife refuges (Alaska Peninsula, Becharof, and Togiak), the nation’s largest state park (Wood-Tikchik), as well as millions of acres of undeveloped lands and waters. In short, it is one of the most spectacular and wildest landscapes on the continent.

Wildness, however, doesn’t equate unpeopled. Humans have lived in the Bristol Bay region for at least 9,000 years and likely longer (the oldest human habitation sites were probably flooded by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age).  Bristol Bay’s Yupik, Alutiiq, and Dena’ina developed a complex relationship with the resources they used to survive, especially salmon. Today, salmon remain the cultural, economic, ecological heartbeat of the region.

Born in freshwater and grown large in the sea, salmon are a conveyor of energy and nutrients. Their upriver migration feeds everything from mink, otter, eagles, and brown bears to 30 inch-long rainbow trout and 10-pound char. After spawning, they die and their decomposing bodies distribute millions of pounds of fertilizer, substantially increasing the productivity of an otherwise nutrient poor freshwater system. Salmon even help plants grow faster.

The area’s abundance isn’t fantasy either. Bristol Bay’s 2018 salmon run was the largest on record, with over 62 million wild salmon returning. Of that run, 21 million sockeye went uncaught and escaped upstream to spawn. 2018 was the fourth consecutive year that sockeye salmon runs exceeded 50 million fish. Exvessel value, the activities that occur when a commercial fishing boat lands or unloads a catch, was worth $281 million dollars. In 2010, during a much smaller run compared to 2018, harvesting, processing, and retailing Bristol Bay salmon created $1.5 billion in sales across the U.S. The value of salmon is even higher when all salmon related jobs—fishing, processing, tourism, supplies, services, and government—are taken into account.

Pebble Mine puts all that at risk.

GIF of underwater footage of sockeye salmon

Pebble Mine is a proposed open pit copper and gold mine at the northern headwaters of Bristol Bay. The fully developed mine site would encompass over 8,000 acres. Tailings ponds and an open pit would straddle two incredibly productive salmon producing watersheds—the Kvichak and Nushagak. Supporting infrastructure would include a 270-megawatt power generating plant, a 188-mile natural gas pipeline, dozens of miles of roads, and up to three new ports where no development currently exists.

As part of the required permitting process, the Army Corps of Engineers is currently soliciting comments on its draft Pebble Mine Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Comments will be accepted until May 30. I’m working on my comments now and plan to share them in another post, but the draft is huge, over a thousand pages long, so it’s taking me some time to read. However, my initial evaluation of the document has revealed major concerns.

  • The DEIS evaluates the mine’s active phase (20 years), but pays little attention to the true lifespan of the mine’s footprint, which will extend for hundreds, even thousands of years and create a permanent hazard to the watershed. After the mine’s proposed 20-year operation phase is complete, the landscape is supposed to be reclaimed. Tailings and waste rock will be stored underground or underwater in the former open pit. The open pit will be allowed to fill with water. Once the open pit lake rises high enough, water would be pumped from it, treated to meet water quality standards, and discharged into the watershed. This must happen forever to prevent groundwater contamination.
  • The DEIS does not evaluate the effects of a catastrophic tailings dam failure, which would release a toxic slurry of material into the Kvickchak and Nushagak watersheds. The risk of this is low, but that’s beside the point. The risk still exists and cannot be eliminated.
  • The DEIS does not evaluate who will pay for and maintain permanent water treatment in the open pit.* There is currently no financial plan to fund wastewater treatment after the 20-year operational phase when the mine is to be “reclaimed.” Who’s to pick up the tab when the Pebble Partnership, the mining consortium owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals, decides to walk away? The partnership claims financial assurance for site closure and monitoring is required before construction, but this does not assure funding for perpetual waste-water treatment. Since the corporation cannot guarantee financial solvency forever, it should not be allowed to create hazards that last forever.
  • The DEIS does not sufficiently evaluate the cultural impact the loss of salmon would represent to local residents, especially Native Alaskans. I’ve never been to any place where a single group of animals means as much to a regional culture as salmon do for the residents of Bristol Bay. For them, loss of salmon would be equivalent to the loss of bison for American Indians across the Great Plains.
  • Supporting roads, ports, and other infrastructure have the potential to disrupt some the best, untrammeled bear habitat in the region, especially for bears that use the McNeil River area just north of Katmai National Park.

Pebble’s proponents argue that the mine and salmon can coexist, but the two are at fundamental odds and always will be. Mike Heatwole, president of Public Affairs at the Pebble Partnership, told Mashable that the mine will cause no “population-level challenges to fish and wildlife resources.”

Screen shot from Pebble Partnership website. Text says, "Where is Pebble? Despite what you may have heard, Pebble is not at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. It is located at the upper reaches of three small tributaries — out of more than 50,000 in the Kvichak and Nushagak watersheds."

Pebble Partnership also claims the mine isn’t at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, which is blatantly false. This screen shot is taken directly from their website.

Despite talk that the salmon “population” won’t be affected, the mine reduces spawning and rearing habitat no matter what. Even under a best-case scenario where Pebble Partnership keeps its word, this is still precisely how we begin to lose salmon—one impassible culvert, one dam, one mine at a time. A few yards of stream here, a little more there. Does that matter? It sure does, as the story of salmon in the contiguous 48 states illustrates.

When Lewis and Clark explored the lower Columbia, they found the riverbanks lined with people, and a regional subsistence and trade economy based on the river’s salmon. In less than 150 years, it was gone. Farther upstream at Spokane Falls, people once gathered for thousands of years to catch 60 – 80 pound chinook. Those runs too are nothing more than memory.

In Washington State today, we bicker over the last of the wild salmon, considering whether to cull sea lions to help save an endangered population of starving orcas. Not far from where I live, Baker River sockeye are completely dependent on human intervention for their survival, because dams now completely block access to their spawning grounds. The outlook for salmon isn’t good on the rest of the west coast either. By 1999, wild salmon had disappeared from about 40 percent of their historic range in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California. Across the continent in Maine, where people have taken great strides to clean up rivers and remove some barriers to salmon migration, almost no wild Atlantic salmon remain. Twelve Atlantic salmon returned to Maine’s second and third largest rivers, the Androscoggin and Kennebec, respectively, in 2018. Twelve.

No single factor caused the collapse of salmon runs in New England or the west coast. It was death by a thousand cuts. They were treated as an afterthought at best, undervalued and willingly sacrificed for “progress.” Similarly, if developed, Pebble Mine probably won’t be the end to salmon in Bristol Bay, but it could certainly be the beginning of the end. As Van Victor, president of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, rhetorically asked, “At the end of the day, do we really want to risk what is truly one of mother nature’s wonders of the world for copper and gold?”

GIF of underwater footage of salmon fry

Young salmon fry feed in one of Bristol Bay untarnished rivers.

If you haven’t seen Bristol Bay, if you haven’t experienced what a truly wild and healthy ecosystem is like, then it might be easy to dismiss my concerns. It can be hard to imagine rivers and streams flooded with fish, where wildlife and people flourish on the seasonal treasure. That dynamic simply no longer exists in most of the rest of North America and we, unfortunately, consider it normal. In conservation biology, this generational amnesia is called shifting baseline syndrome: Every generation sees nature through a different lens and what we view as normal is actually degraded. Our threshold for acceptable environmental conditions is continually being lowered.

Thankfully, we don’t have imagine or scour history books to understand what Bristol Bay’s fishery and ecosystem was once like because it is what it has been since the last of the Ice Age glaciers melted from the landscape. We can still experience it at its full potential. It’s a treasure to savor and protect.

But we could lose it, quite easily in fact. Pebble Mine represents greed over sustainability. If developed, it provides clear evidence we won’t stop till the entire world is consumed. Future generations will judge us poorly if we take everything and leave nothing. It takes a special kind of naiveté to believe otherwise.

 

*I’d like to add a correction on this point. According to James Fueg of the Pebble Partnership, a closure bond would have to be in place before construction can begin, with the bond’s purpose to fund perpetual wastewater treatment by the state. This is good and something I didn’t know about. However, this is of little consolation. It is unethical for a private corporation to create a permanent hazard that the government then must forever ensure is contained. It’s not in the public’s best interest, and shouldn’t be allowed.

A (Sometimes) Overlooked Significance

Recently, I stumbled upon this question.

Honestly, it’s something that I think about regularly when I’m planning a trip to a national park. While people frequently visit parks and other protected areas to experience unique and special landscapes, sometimes we fail to see their forests for the trees, or even see their forests at all.

I think this is particularly true of North Cascades National Park and the adjacent recreation areas, Lake Chelan and Ross Lake. The region is most famous for its rugged mountain topography, which I must admit is quite pretty, but visiting here solely to see mountains risks missing some of the best, uncut forests left in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not implying that a visit to a park without admiring trees is somehow less worthy than my slow forest strolls. Far from it; national parks mean different things to different people. But, I find myself drawn to trees, no matter where I go, even among some of the Lower 48’s craggiest mountains.

view of forested valley with tall craggy mountains on horizon

The North Cascades are defined by their ruggedness, and the area’s vertical relief is impressively steep. Ridges and mountain peaks frequently rise above 7,000 feet while deep valleys incise the landscape to near sea level in some places. The Skagit River at Newhalem, for example, flows at 500 feet in elevation while several peaks ascend over 5,000 feet within a few miles. In Stehekin, Lake Chelan sits at a modest 1,100 feet above sea level, but within two and half horizontal miles of the lakeshore, Castle Rock reaches above 8,100 feet.

view of snowy mountains rising above lake

Castle Rock rises 7,000 feet above Lake Chelan.

The rugged topography slowed the march of industrial logging into the mountains, so by the time the North Cascades National Park Service Complex was established in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the forest within the newly protected area had never been logged. In the park today, nearly every low elevation valley holds wonderful examples of wild, unmanaged forests.

Some of the most spectacular and significant trees are found along Big Beaver Creek, which flows southeast into Ross Lake. A section of trail about five miles from Ross Lake passes through a grove of thousand year-old western redcedar.  Preservation of these trees was the catalyst that stopped the expansion of Ross Dam.

bole of large tree with two hiking poles leaning against it

Some western redcedar in the Big Beaver valley are over three meters in diameter at chest height.

hiking trail lined by large redcedar trees

Big Beaver Trail

Along their entire length, both the Big Beaver and Little Beaver valleys harbor incredible forests. The same goes for the Chilliwack River valley and Brush Creek area, so if you hike from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake, you’re in for a spectacular forest hike.

trail winding through dense forest with large trees

Little Beaver Trail

person standing next to trunk of large Douglas-fir

Yours truly and a large Douglas-fir at Graybeal Camp in the Brush Creek valley.

Those places are remote, however, requiring most of a day’s hike just to get near them and several days of backpacking to traverse the valleys. Many other old-growth forests are more accessible. The Stetattle Creek Trail, which starts in the Seattle City Light company town Diablo, ends in a classic example of a climax forest on the west side of the Cascades. This trail is often overlooked and rarely busy. What it lacks in mountain vistas it makes up for in trees.

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Forest near the end of Stetattle Creek Trail

Hiking south from the Colonial Creek Campground, an easy four-mile round trip along Thunder Creek brings you through stately Douglas-fir and western redcedar. People often march through this section, barely stopping to look, as they have their sights set on up-valley destinations, but if you go plan some extra time to stop and admire these trees.

tall trees with foot bridge at bottom

The forest along Thunder Creek

Disturbance—whether brought by fire, avalanche, landslides, or people—is a hallmark of this ecosystem as well. Many large trees stand as witnesses to past and current change.

person standing in front of large tree

Englemann spruce, McAlester Lake Trail

person standing next to large tree with smaller trees nearby

Western white pine, Old Wagon Road Trail

person standing next to large deciduous tree

Black cottonwood, Upper Stehekin Valley Trail

Those that didn’t survive allow us to explore how the ecosystem may cope with future disturbance. I find myself pausing frequently in burned areas and avalanche tracks to admire how quickly the landscape can change.

lightly burned forest with standing dead trees and some minor green vegetation on ground

A recently burned forest along the Park Creek Trail

broken trees in foreground with forests and mountain in background

Avalanches can sometimes devastate otherwise healthy stands of trees. This example comes from the upper Brush Creek valley.

Often overlooked and visited far less than the Highway 20 corridor, the Stehekin valley is the most diverse place in the park complex, both in terms of cultural and natural history. In Stehekin, you can find everything from a historic orchard to plants adapted to desert-like climates growing alongside old-growth groves.

trail through forest with bright yellow fall colors

Stehekin River Trail

red maple leaves in forest

Vine maple splashes the Stehekin valley with color each fall.

Trees persist and even thrive despite the forces constantly working against them. They create vertical habitat, greatly increasing the landscape’s capacity to support life. They tell tales survival and struggle, longevity and adaptability. They are living witnesses to history and catalysts for conservation. North Cascades provides a rare opportunity to explore unmanaged, old forests—habitats that are becoming increasingly rare. And, if you can’t get here, just go to your local park or maybe even your back yard where, I bet, there’s a tree worthy of your attention.

Fishers Return to North Cascades

On an uncommonly sunny day in early February, I stood in a tract of old-growth forest not far from the Suiattle River to watch a missing mammal return to the North Cascades. With the return of the fisher, this area is one step closer to whole.

The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is one of the largest North American weasels. Adult females weigh four to six pounds and measure about 30 to 36 inches long, including tail, when fully grown. Males are about 20% larger, growing upwards of 13 pounds and nearly four feet long. Despite the name, fish are not a primary prey. Instead, fishers are wolverines of the forest. Highly arboreal, cylindrical in shape, and agile in motion, they are formidable predators of rodents, rabbits, hares, grouse, and other small to medium-sized animals.

fisher running to escape a box, people standing behind it

One of the first fishers to be released on February 6. The common name, fisher, is probably a modern English language corruption of “fitch,” a Middle English term for the pelt of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), also known as the common ferret. Not coincidentally, the colonial Dutch fisse and visse as well as the French fiche and fichet, all words for the polecat, sound quite similar to fisher. (NPS Photo)

Fishers were functionally extirpated from Washington by the mid 20th century due to habitat fragmentation and, especially, unregulated trapping. Surveys in the 1990s and early 2000s failed to find evidence of any viable fisher populations. As a first step to recover the species in the state, a coalition of public agencies, tribes, and private organizations released fishers in Olympic National Park from 2008-2010. This was followed by similar efforts in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park from 2015-2017. The North Cascades National Park Service Complex and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest began to host the fisher’s return last fall, which is how I found myself standing in the woods with about twenty other people on February 6.

Fishers prefer mature forests with a high canopy, relatively large diameter trees, and an abundance of downed trees. Dead standing trees are particularly important to fishers, as they den exclusively in tree cavities. The release site for the fishers this day seemed particularly well suited to their needs.

forest and stream

Fortunately and conveniently, healthy populations of fishers remain in British Columbia and Alberta and they serve as the source for the restoration effort. Fishers from western Canada are also genetically similar to those that used to inhabit Washington. Canadian trappers were paid to capture live, healthy animals. The Calgary Zoo temporarily housed the fishers while veterinarians evaluated their health and surgically implanted tiny radio transmitters to assist biologists in tracking them.

Twelve hours before release, these particular animals were still in Calgary. At 1 a.m., the fishers were flown to Abbotsford, British Columbia where they were picked up by biologists and driven into Washington. By early afternoon, a gang of biologists and a few interested souls like me were unloading the cargo and carrying the fishers a short distance to the release site.

Fisher release, Buck Creek Campground, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest_02062019_4

Fishers were transported in specially designed crates. Two fishers, separated by a partition, are in each crate.

view through screened hole of fisher in a box

A fisher peeks through a window toward the outside world.

people carrying wooden crates on forested path

Our group formed a semi-circle around the crates to watch the release. Conversations quieted to a whisper or died in anticipation as the crates were opened one at a time. To coax them out, a screened vent was opened at the top and a volunteer blew a puff of air into the container. I’m unsure if this was as annoying as someone blowing air into my ear, but the trick worked. The fishers shot out like a flash and bolted into the forest.

Six fishers were released that day bringing the total number currently released in the area to 24. The release efforts will continue until about 80 fishers are reintroduced to the area. Biologists will track, monitor, and study the animals to assess survival rates, identify where they go after release and where they establish home ranges, the types of foods they eat, and the diseases and parasites they suffer from.

The effort has a high chance of success. Reintroductions, however, are rarely so simple. Fishers, although not well known among the general public, are relatively non-controversial animals. They don’t evoke the same emotional reactions in people as grizzly bears or wolves, for example.

More than that, however, the forested habitats along the core and margins of the North Cascades are largely intact. Land managers needn’t take extreme, expensive, time-consuming measures to restore the ecosystem to a point where it could support fishers again. It could always support them. We just didn’t allow fishers to survive here.

Because prior generations had the foresight to protect places like North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness, we have the opportunity to restore fishers to land they once knew as home. Situations like these are becoming increasingly uncommon. People have fundamentally altered so much of the Earth to preclude the reintroduction of many extirpated species into their historic ranges. (There’s no substantial habitat available for bison in Iowa, for example.)

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Potential future fisher habitat along Stetattle Creek in North Cascades National Park.

As humanity’s footprint grows, undeveloped landscapes are increasingly valuable, not for the resources we can exploit within them (including supposedly non-consumptive uses like solitude), but as repositories of biodiversity and ecosystem health. To adapt an idea from Thoreau, future generations, I believe, will measure our legacy not by what we invented and consumed, not by our material wealth, but by what we can afford to let alone.

I’ll probably never see any of these fishers ever again. Even if the population increases to hundreds of individuals, they’ll remain reclusive neighbors. If I’m lucky, I may find a track in fresh snow or its scat on a log. But even that doesn’t matter. I’ll know they are there and I’ll know the landscape is healthier because of it. The return of the fisher represents, at least in one small way, the success of our ability to let one place—North Cascades—alone.

Happy Birthday Bear

Across much of North America, tucked within isolated dens, a new generation of bears is beginning their lives.

Mother bears spent much of the last year preparing for this event. Although the timing varies among species and individuals, North America’s bears mate in late spring and early summer. The fertilized eggs, however, do not immediately implant in the uterus, undergoing only a few cell divisions before they enter a state of arrested development. During this process of delayed implantation, the female goes about her business while embryos remain in suspended animation. Implantation and fetal growth renew only close to the time she enters her winter den. Afterward, bear fetuses gestate for 6 – 8 weeks.

The gestation time is remarkably short for such a large mammal, and it produces especially tiny and helpless cubs. Brown bear cubs, for example, weigh a scant pound and measure only 8 – 9 inches long at birth, about the size of a beagle puppy. They are also born blind, lightly furred, and nearly immobile. Their ears are closed and their muzzles are short with a round, toothless mouth. Newborn cubs are so underdeveloped and small that they cannot maintain their own body heat in the den and must remain in contact with their mother to stay warm. About the only thing they can do is scream, which, not unlike human newborns, they employ frequently to gain their mother’s attention. It’s hard to imagine large adult bears so helpless, but they all start life this way.

Three small cubs held in a person's hands.

Newborn black bear cubs. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

The small size of newborn cubs is surprising for animals that weigh several hundred pounds when fully grown. Generally, larger mammal species have longer gestation periods and give birth to larger offspring than smaller mammal species. African elephant calves gestate for nearly two years and are born bigger than elk calves; elk calves gestate for about eight months and are born bigger than deer fawns; deer fawns gestate for seven months and are born bigger than fox kits; etc. But, bears break the rule by a considerable margin. Bears give birth to the smallest offspring in comparison to adult female body size of any mammal.

Cubs are only 1/200th the size of even the smallest reproducing female grizzlies and commonly 1/500th or less for large adult brown and polar bears. In contrast, newborn human babies are an order of magnitude larger than bear cubs. A 10 pound child born from a 150 pound woman is 1/15th the size of its mother (yeah, I know that’s a big baby but the math was easy). Additionally, offspring born to large mammals are generally precocial, i.e. they are at least somewhat and sometimes highly mobile soon after birth. Bear cubs, however, are more akin to helpless hatchling birds or pinky mice. There is no parallel among placental mammals—only marsupials give birth to offspring as undersized as bears.

But why are bear cubs born purposefully premature? Why not just have a longer gestation time and birth larger, more independent cubs? The short gestation period and the relatively small size of bear cubs at birth both appear to be an adaptation to maximize the use of fat.

Bears are the only mammals that give birth while hibernating, a time when they do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate. Survival during this time is dependent on stored body fat, but the paradigm poses a problem for expectant female bears. A developing mammal fetus cannot metabolize free-fatty acids, perhaps because these substances do not cross the placenta as readily as sugars and protein. So, as long as a bear tries to sustain fetal growth through her placenta, she needs to draw energy from her own body protein. Fetuses also produce bodily waste, which is transferred to the mother and adds to her physiological challenges. To cope, bears evolved an alternative strategy, one that allows her to give birth while hibernating, support the continued growth of cubs, and keep the family safe.

Unlike in the womb, baby mammals can metabolize fat shortly after birth and milk is the vector to deliver it. Bear milk is a particularly rich and nourishing substance. Brown bear milk, for example, is about 22% fat by volume. Polar bear milk is even richer, a whipping cream composed of over 30% fat. By shortening the gestation period, mother bears trade placental nourishment (mostly protein and sugar) for mammary nourishment (mostly fat) and tap into the one resource they have in abundance.

fat brown bear exiting water

Female bears utilize their fat reserves to support the growth and nourishment of their cubs.

On a diet of fatty milk, a brown bear cub can gain about a 1/5 of a pound of body mass per day, weighing about 5 pounds when one month old and 15 – 25 pounds by 90 days. Not coincidentally, this is about big as they would be if gestation was of an “expected” length like other placental mammals. The den, therefore, becomes a surrogate womb, protecting the family during the most vulnerable time in their lives.

Two polar bear cubs standing at the entrance to a snow den.

Polar bears play at the entrance to their mother’s den. These cubs are probably several weeks old. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

Bears face many obstacles to survive and reproduce, not the least of which is winter famine. Hibernation provides bears with the ability to outwit winter by surviving on accumulated fat, but during this time a female bear must support the growth of her cubs with nothing more than the energy stored in her body. Given the challenges posed by gestation, hibernation, and winter famine, the birth of a bear represents a remarkable and unparalleled feat of mammalian adaptation.

So, happy birthday brown bear.

Hair Ice is Doped for Beauty

Late one frosty morning, I paused my walk to admire ice crystals that had grown from a small branch lying on the ground. Delicate and lacy to the extreme, the ice had a silky and well-kempt appearance. The formation was gorgeous.

silky ice, parted neatly in curls, growing out of dead wood

This was my first glimpse of hair ice, a phenomenon that originates in a surprising way.

If you live in a temperate climate that experiences hard frosts, you might be familiar needle ice. Even though it forms on frosty nights, this type of ice isn’t frost because it doesn’t condense out of the atmosphere. According Dr. James Carter of Illinois State University, it forms instead from in water in soil through ice segregation, a process when “above freezing and below freezing temperatures are juxtaposed. At the Earth’s surface this is most common in fall at night as the air cools to below freezing while the land surface stays relatively warm.” As ice forms on the soil surface, liquid water is pulled up from below through capillary action and freezes to the existing ice. This forces the ice to grow away from the freezing surface. The process stops when the temperature becomes cold enough to freeze everything up, the temperature rises above the freezing point of water and everything melts, or the soil surface becomes too dry.

Hair ice however, forms under even more specific, and perhaps unusual, circumstances. Like needle ice in soil, hair ice needs air temperatures just below freezing and a water saturated substrate. Unlike needle ice though, hair ice forms only on wood, specifically the dead and bark-free wood of broadleaf trees. Why only on dead wood?

silky looking ice growing out of dead woodsilky looking ice growing out of dead woodSee more photos of hair ice on iNaturalist

In 2015, researchers from Germany and Switzerland published a very interesting (and highly readable for a scientific paper) study titled, “Evidence for the Biological Shaping of Hair Ice.” Through repeated observations and laboratory experiments, they confirmed that the biological action of a winter-active fungus, Exidiopsis effuse, is required to enable the growth of hair ice.

Looking at the cross section of a small branch, wood rays radiate from the center of a branch like spokes on a bicycle wheel. From these rays, hair ice threads emerge and grow perpendicularly from the wood surface. The thickness of individual hair ice stalks corresponds to the diameter of the wood ray channels. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I could visualize the true scale of these cellular channels.

But this doesn’t explain how the ice maintains its shape. Threads of hair ice are extremely thin, sometimes .02 millimeters in diameter or smaller. Yet, they can grow to be 20 centimeters long (that’s 1,000 times longer than it’s thickness!) and maintain their shape for days. Normally, ice this fine couldn’t retain its shape for so long. It would recrystallize into larger crystals quickly at temperatures near freezing.

While the chemical process that preserves its fine and delicate structure is not fully understood, it seems that the ice, according to the 2015 study’s authors, is “doped” into maintaining its shape by fungi. Samples of melted hair ice contain lignin, tannins, and other compounds. Lignin cannot be digested by animals, only by fungus and some bacteria. It’s presence in the water, therefore indicates fungal activity. (We can thank fungi that forested habitats aren’t buried in dead trees.) The lignin and tannins might act as a crystallization surface for the ice and the fungi might help to initially shape the ice as it forms at the surface of the wood rays.

When researchers applied fungicide or hot water (90-95˚C) the hair ice wood for several minutes, hair ice formation was suppressed for many days. Instead of hair ice, an simple ice crust formed on the wood. This indicates that hair ice formation is somehow catalyzed by fungal activity and that high temperatures inhibit the activity of Exidiopsis effusa.

Since I first observed it, air temperatures have been too warm in my neck of the woods for hair ice to reappear. Given its ephemeral nature and remarkable delicacy, I’ll be sure to search for it once the temperature drops again. If I find it, I’ll surely be astonished by ice that was—in a sense—doped by a magic mushroom.

Francis Beilder Forest

Tucked away in a section of Four Holes Swamp, a tributary of the Edisto River in South Carolina, lies a pocket of remarkable forest. Currently owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, Francis Beilder Forest protects the largest virgin bald cypress and tupelo swamp remaining in North America.

silhouette of large bald cypress tree surrounded by other treesBald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a deciduous member of the cypress family (Cupressaceae), which includes juniper, white-cedar, arborvitae, incense-cedar, Sequoia, and redwood. Like hickory trees, however, bald cypress shed their pinnate leaves each fall and grow new leaves in the spring. This characteristic inspired their common name since the trees are “bald” for at least part of the year. The species is long-lived and its wood is rot resistant. Recently, cypress logs dating back 25,000 to 50,000 years have been uncovered from sand quarries along the Pee–Dee River.

Visiting the Beilder forest is easy, requiring only the ability to traverse a level, 1.75 mile-long boardwalk. Walking into the forest, I could immediately see this was a special place.

black water swamp in winter with reflections of trees in waterBald cypress swamps experience seasonal flooding, and when I visited in mid December the forest was covered in a blanket of tea-colored water stained brown by tannins. The day was relatively warm and temperatures reached above 60˚ F. A few turtles and snakes took the opportunity to climb out of the water and sun themselves on fallen logs. My attention, however, was consistently drawn to the canopy and the craggy tops of centuries- and millennium-old bald cypress trees.

silhouette of large bald cypress treeBald cypress is one of the longest-lived trees in North America and the longest-lived tree in the eastern U.S. The oldest known tree at Beilder is nearly 1,600 years old. Along the boardwalk, you can find a 1,000-year giant, which outwardly looks healthy enough to stand another thousand years. (I asked the Audubon staff if I could see the 1,600 year-old tree and to my delight it could be found along the boardwalk. But, I won’t disclose its exact location since the staff would like to avoid making it a target for vandals.)

silhouette of large bald cypress tree

A thousand year-old giant in Francis Beilder Forest. This tree grows adjacent to the boardwalk and is identified by a sign.

At Beilder, many trees are massively trunked, resembling the silhouette of giant sequoia. Above their basal swell, they barely seem to taper until their branches splay outward in the canopy.

silhouette of large bald cypress tree; tree is surrounded by a boardwalkWhen you live to be over 1,000 years old you’re bound to acquire a scar or two. Reaching over 100 feet high, each bald cypress carries a legacy of the battles with insects, fire, and severe weather like thunderstorms, tornados, and hurricanes.

crown of large bald cypress with broken branch

Some time ago, a large branch broke off of this tree, perhaps allowing carpenter ants an easy means of entry. Larger holes in the same branch are the work of large woodpeckers like pileated woodpeckers. One hundred and fifty years ago, ivory-billed woodpeckers would’ve inhabited this place too. Could some of these woodpecker holes be from this extinct bird?

top of trunk of hollow bald cypress tree

The charcoaled interior of this large bald cypress preserves a moment in time when it was struck by lightning and burned.

Collectively and individually, these trees tell a fascinating story, if we are willing to listen. Maybe the most poignant of those, from my perspective, is loss.

I marveled at the trees at Francis Beidler, but I marveled at a fragment. Their longevity and physical proportions might only be remarkable because we’ve eradicated nearly all other bald cypress of the same size and age. Francis Beidler Forest is one of the few places where old-growth bald cypress trees still exist. According to one estimate, over 42 million acres of bald cypress forests once covered the southeastern United States, an area nearly the size of Missouri. Now, only 10,000 acres remain, equivalent to .02% of the original bald cypress forest! The rest was logged for lumber, furniture, and shingles with no forethought for future generations who may find great value (monetary or otherwise) in healthy ecosystems or for the species who depended on this habitat.

Through uncontrolled hunting and the loss of old-growth forests like bald cypress swamps, we drove the Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker to extinction. Knowing what we consumed in the past, understanding that we continue to cause extinctions and change the climate today, can we ethically expand our footprint on Earth? How much extinction does it take before we say enough is enough?

The trees at Beilder felt the pounding of the ivory-bill and heard the calls of parakeets. Perhaps they were even enveloped by passenger pigeons, a species once so abundant in North America that their flocks extended for miles and blackened the skies. The air in this forest used to ring with the echoes of these birds. When we lose forests, we lose much more than trees.

 

My Live Bearcam Broadcasts in 2018

This was a busy year on the bearcams, courtesy of explore.org and Katmai National Park. We hosted more live broadcasts this  year than any other year since the bearcams first went live in 2012.

During play-by-play broadcasts Katmai rangers and myself narrated the Brooks River’s wildlife activity, much like broadcasters for sporting event (although the lives of brown bears and salmon is no game). We never knew what might happen during a play-by-play. Watching the prolonged posturing between two of Brooks River’s largest adult males, 856 and 32 Chunk, on July 12 and integrating the ranger’s radio traffic into the September 17th broadcast are two of my favorite play-by-play moments.

The other broadcasts, live chats, typically focused on a specific topic such as bear fishing styles, hibernation, and bear research at Brooks River. Rangers Andrew LaValle and Russ Taylor from Katmai joined me as frequent co-hosts for live chats and I was also fortunate enough to speak with many special guests. Perhaps the most memorable moment from these broadcasts occurred when bear 132 and her spring cub almost stepped on Ranger Andrew and I during our Katmai centennial live chat on September 24.

If you enjoy these, then please watch many other broadcasts hosted by Katmai National Park rangers and staff on explore.org’s education channel on YouTube.

 

Stuff I wrote in 2018

I was busy on a keyboard this year, even though there were long gaps between posts on this site. In case you missed them, here are the posts that I wrote for explore.org in 2018. They are listed in the order they were posted. My personal favorites include “How does a bear family breakup,” “How many salmon will a bear eat,” “Bearcam live chat surprise,” and “Living with Bears in Churchill.”

  • Brooks River Bear Mating Season: In June, food isn’t the only thing on a bear’s mind.
  • 2018 Bearcam Stories: 503: Emancipated from his adopted mom in the spring of 2016, bear 503, also known as Cubadult, has quickly grown into an energetic and often playful young adult.
  • Early June at Brooks Falls:  Standing at the falls from early to mid June is an exercise in patience and an opportunity to reflect on the changes soon to come.
  • 2018 Bearcam Stories: The Elders of Brooks River: Their longevity of Brooks River’s oldest bears demonstrates a level of individual success few bears achieve.
  • The Mouth of Brooks River: The lower river cams provide expansive views, colorful sunrises and sunsets, as well as the opportunity to see many yearly and seasonal changes.
  • What to Look for 2018: The Bear Hierarchy: Watching the ebb and flow of the hierarchy allows us to at least partly understand the conflict and challenges faced by bears.
  • Bear 856: On Top Again: Bear 856 appears to be big enough and healthy enough to show the river’s other adult male bears he’s ready to compete once again.
  • Death of a Bear Cub at Brooks River: As the smallest and most vulnerable of all bears, first year cubs (also called spring cubs or cubs-of-the-year) face significant risks and challenges, not the least of which are larger bears.
  • Dumpling Mountain Hike: Rising over 2000 feet above Brooks River, Dumpling Mountain offers anyone a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of Brooks Camp. Each time I hike on it, I get an opportunity to see the land in a new way.
  • Four Cubs for 402 Again: No matter this family’s fate, we can marvel at 402’s determination to follow her maternal instincts in an attempt raise another generation of Brooks River’s bears.
  • How Does a Bear Family Breakup? Until somewhat recently, I stated that 402 had “abandoned” her yearling (now known as 503). While this might be true in a sense, I no longer think that this is an accurate way of describing the event. After reading more about the emancipation process, I’ve come to believe 402 didn’t abandon her yearling in 2014. She emancipated him.
  • How Many Salmon will a Bear Eat? We often observe bears partake in marathon fishing sessions at Brooks Falls, so how much can they eat in a day or season? Quite a lot.
  • Salmon on the Underwater Bearcam: The calmer, deeper water near the outlet of Brooks River provides salmon with a temporary refuge that is relatively safe and costs them little energy.
  • 451 and Her Yearlings: 451 is currently raising her second litter, and it’s easy to see that the family is skinner than many of the other bears on the bearcams.
  • Bearcam Line of Sight: Where are the bearcams and where, specifically, do they look?
  • Brooks Falls Trail: Simply walking to Brooks Falls can be an exciting and memorable experience and allows great opportunities to explore a changing habitat.
  • Mid Summer Change at Brooks River: Are fewer bears at Brooks River a sign of change?
  • An Exceptional August: Regarding bear activity at Brooks River, August 2018 has been exceptional.
  • Fishing By Snorkeling: Efficient and effective, snorkeling is one of the best strategies to scavenge fish.
  • Can a Bear be Too Fat? When you see bears whose stomachs appear to drag on the ground, one wonders if a bear can grow too fat for its own good.
  • Bearcam Live Chat Surprise: “This being a live broadcast it’s entirely possible…a bear could walk through the screen at any time. So if we have to exit or end the broadcast abruptly that’s probably why.”
  • Fat Bear Week Quarterfinal Preview: The competition just keeps getting bigger.
  • Mike Fitz’s Favorite Bearcam Moments of 2018: Here are a few of my favorite bear cam moments for 2018.
  • Evidence of Rapid Change in Katmai: the Ukak and Savonoski Rivers spill across a broad, 1.5-mile wide delta. In a landscape often defined by change, this is one of the most dynamic places in Katmai National Park.
  • 2018’s Top Ten Bearcam Moments: the people have spoken! Bearcam viewers have chosen the top ten bearcam moments of 2018. Each moment is unique and significant for a different reason.
  • Living with Bears in Churchill: The confluence of bears and people in this remote community has created a special set of challenges, which can only be met through the town’s willingness to tolerate the largest four-legged predator on Earth.

Vote on Climate

In my last post, I explored the origins of an alpine lake in North Cascades. The news cycle was especially terrible the day I wrote it, so I decided to leave out details about the causes and consequences of glacial retreat in North Cascades. But honestly, the causes and consequences are too great to ignore. It is no small irony that my insight and enjoyment into the formation of an alpine lake was inadvertently provided by people through human-caused climate change.

All glaciers in North Cascades are retreating and they’ve collectively lost over 50% of their mass during the last 100 years. This is directly due to a warming climate, a product of burning fossil fuels like coal and oil.

before and after photos of glacier.

Banded Glacier in 1960 (left) and 2016 (right) in North Cascades National Park.

Unless you’ve been living under one of those glaciers for the past century, you might’ve heard there’s an election next week and voting has begun in many states. While casting our votes, we have an opportunity to elect representatives who will work to mitigate climate change. But, we shouldn’t vote to combat climate change just because glaciers are receding in North Cascades National Park.

We should act on climate, because glacial melt water moderates summertime drought. Millions of people depend on glaciers for drinking water.

We should act on climate to lessen the risk from extreme weather events like drought, hurricanes, floods, and heat waves.

We should act on climate to ensure supplies of fresh water are not overly taxed by humanity’s increasing demands. Who wants reliable access to clean fresh water? All of us.

We should act on climate to help reduce the spread of invasive species, many of which are finding easier footholds where ecosystems are already stressed and fragmented.

We should act on climate to prevent the loss of arctic sea ice, a habitat that helps cool the planet by reflecting sunlight into space, forms the basis of a complex polar food web, and is one necessary for the survival of polar bears.

We should act on climate so coastlines aren’t flooded by sea level rise.

We should act on climate to mitigate ocean acidification, which can impact marine food chains. A lot of us eat seafood and even if we don’t, we like animals that eat seafood (whales, bears, etc.). What would Katmai National Park, my favorite place, be without abundant salmon? An impoverished place, that’s what.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

We have a moral responsibility to stave off the worst climate change impacts, because this is a human-caused issue. Collectively we can do it, but we have to take the threat seriously. We, as a nation, didn’t vote to combat climate change during the 2016 election. Thankfully, we have another chance now, but time is running out to slow and eventually halt what is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. That’s why I’m voting for initiatives to mitigate climate change and only for candidates who take climate change seriously.

photo of Washington State ballot showing yes selected for Initiative 1631

In Washington, Initiative 1631 would authorize the first carbon tax in the U.S. This is my ballot.

I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to explore active glacial environments in many parts of North America. In Katmai, I’ve walked on pumice-covered glaciers to reach volcanic calderas, numbed my feet in icy glacial runoff, and eaten freshly calved ice (if you’re wondering, it was clean tasting but a little gritty). In the North Cascades I explored the margins of the region’s still active ice. To find an advancing glacier in modern times, however, is rare. Melting glaciers are one of our most conspicuous symbols of global warming.

Glaciers have come and gone in the past, of course. I grew up in a region of Pennsylvania where Ice Age glaciers terminated their last advance, leaving behind eskers and sand quarries. I lived near Lake Chelan, a remarkable inland fjord carved by glaciers. Katmai was also completely overrun by ice. Modern glacial retreat is different though, because we’re the primary cause. Climate change isn’t a hoax or some deep-state conspiracy. It’s real, it’s here, and humans are causing it. There is no scientifically plausible alternative theory that explains the changes to Earth’s climate observed since the Industrial Revolution.

I still find beauty in the ice, but each time I see a glacier I also am reminded of one of Aldo Leopold’s many maxims,

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

The community is not well, because we’ve wounded it. Let’s step up and act. When you vote, only vote for those who take climate change seriously and, more importantly, will actively work to reduce its impact. The status quo got us here, but the status quo is no longer good enough.