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.

 

To Change or Not To Change: A National Park Question

Last year, Isle Royale National Park released a draft plan to determine whether and how to stabilize the park’s wolf population. After evaluating the merits of several alternatives, weeding through public feedback, and with only two wolves remaining, the park has decided to introduce 20-30 wolves over a three-year period. In the park’s decision, managers have affirmed their belief that wolves on Isle Royale are an irreplaceable part of the ecosystem, and their loss is unacceptable.

Parks are being increasingly managed for change, but the myth of national parks as static vignettes of primitive America remains pervasive. As I wrote on this issue last year, parks are not pure. We live in an era of unprecedented change, and situations like Isle Royale’s will only become more common.

The National Park Service has made strides toward acknowledging that parks will change, but it’s time to put a greater effort into planning for it. To help the public better understand the dynamic nature of national parks and their significance—what we’re willing to save and what we’re willing to let go—there should be an effort across the NPS to identify at-risk resources and decide whether to protect them. Resources to protect would be species, habitats, and processes that if lost would impair the significance of the park or reduce biodiversity. This could help guide current and future management of parks, leading the NPS to implement preventative or prescriptive actions to stave off unacceptable impairment instead of waiting until it’s nearly too late.

In areas with endemic or endangered species—such as Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala, and Channel Islands—it may be most appropriate to manage against change to mitigate the risk of losing unique habitats or species to extinction.

In other areas where forest compositions will shift, it may be more appropriate to let change happen as long as native biodiversity is protected.

view of tundra and shrubs with mountains and lake in background

In Katmai National Park, shrubs and trees now grow at higher elevations compared to 100 years ago.

view of mountain scenery with craggy peaks and snowfields.

Should this view be protected or should tree be allowed to encroach on the scene? At North Cascades National Park, tree line is expected to rise in elevation which may threaten views like this one near Cascade Pass. Forests in this park, especially at low elevations, are also projected to burn more frequently under a warmer climate.

Importantly, this planning effort could help the public better understand decisions like Isle Royale’s, which seems inconsistent and arbitrary to many people who commented on the plan.

Biologists predict wolves will be extirpated from Isle Royale within a few years without direct intervention, but why intervene on the behalf of wolves at all? Wolves, as a species, don’t need Isle Royale to survive. As the NPS reasons, it’s less for them, and more for the park. Without wolves climate change would have a greater influence on the archipelago. Plant communities would shift dramatically under heavy browsing pressure from moose, causing a cascade of effects and perhaps, according the park’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, become less resilient.

“Under alternative A, increased [moose browsing] is probable and combined with climate change effects, it is likely that the rate of vegetation changes would be exacerbated and potentially accelerated. Additionally, it is expected that the resiliency of current wildlife populations to change would be reduced and contribute to more rapid population swings. Under alternative B [the preferred alternative] and C, it is expected that the project [sic] warming trends influences [sic] on the island would be less likely to be compounded by herbivory and its associated impacts.” (Pg. V)

Scenarios like Isle Royale’s will only become more common as we continue to fragment habitat, introduce invasive species, and change the climate. Not that I want it to be this way. Ideally park ecosystems would remain healthy enough and function normally enough so native species and biodiversity are protected without our heavy-handedness, but unless we shift our priorities dramatically then we’ll find ourselves stepping in at ever increasing rates.

We can no longer afford to think of parks as museums. What exists in them exists because we, directly or indirectly, choose it. In the face of unprecedented change, national parks cannot remain static. It wasn’t feasible in the past and it’s increasingly infeasible now. Where do we draw the line and how do we intervene? That’s something we need to decide right now—nationwide, collectively, and not in a piecemeal manner.

 

A Winter Cycling in Death Valley

Author’s note: Over ten years ago, I wrote this essay about my cycling experiences at Death Valley. In it you may notice a bias against car travel because I wrote it for a cycling audience in mind, particular those who travel by bicycle. I even pitched it to a cycling magazine (they liked it but needed more quality photos).

I continue to ride my bicycle a lot, and I highly encourage everyone to do so (it’s better for you and the Earth), but over time I’ve come to realize that I should be less judgmental of people who experience parks in different ways than me. Still, I chose not to edit this essay—even though it could certainly use it, especially stylistically. With that being said, here it is, unadulterated and unedited.


I had never been anywhere this windy. I was out for a leisurely overnight trip from Furnace Creek in the heart of Death Valley to the town of Shoshone and back. All went well during this ride—my legs felt strong but worked, I was able to relax, the temperature warmed to a comfortable level (it was December), and I was surrounded the whole way by beautiful scenery. All went well, that is, until the wind hit me like a punch in the face.

Visibility was great earlier that day, and the wind was mostly calm. I could see fifty miles to the north along the wide-open expanse of the valley floor, but there appeared to be a haze obscuring the most distant mountains. My attention was repeatedly drawn back to this haze because it was moving closer. As I rode north, it moved south further obscuring the horizon. By the late afternoon, it was easy to see what was approaching, one of Death Valley’s infamous wind storms.

I’m slow on my bicycle and even more so when it is loaded down with camping gear. The windstorm, if it had any malicious intent, couldn’t have chosen a better time to try and wipe me out. It was late afternoon. I had already ridden sixty miles and my energy levels were dropping. Home was only a dozen or so miles away but the wind forced me to drop into the granny gear. Then it blew even harder. Sand stung my face and dust irritated my eyes. I felt like I was trying to pedal through water. I gave up riding a few miles from home and started to walk.

View of dust storm approaching from right.

A dust storm blows across Death Valley.

That day was rough, as were many others, but I always felt compelled to go back out. After all, there was a 3.3 million acre national park surrounding me. In many areas of the United States, the winters may be soaking wet or too cold to bicycle. Occasionally those things can combine to make Death Valley a not-so-fun place to ride. The odds of that happening, however, are very much against it.

It was an easy choice for me to not bring a car to Death Valley National Park, because I don’t own one. I had lived without a car in remote areas of New Mexico and Washington State before, but still I was a little apprehensive about living and working in Death Valley without the ease an automobile would provide (the supermarket lies sixty miles distant from Furnace Creek). It’s not uncommon to read about a car being a “must have” in order to visit and explore Death Valley. For typical national park visitors, this is true. However, I don’t consider touring cyclists to be typical visitors. Without a car, and on a bicycle, is one of the best ways to experience this park.

On average Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in the United States. The books written about it are full of superlatives describing its extreme heat and changes of elevation. The Badwater Basin, elevation -282 feet, is the lowest dry land point in North America. Telescope Peak, the park’s highest point at elevation 11049 feet, looks right down upon Badwater from its western foothold. Temperatures exceeding 120° F are routine anywhere in the valley during the height of summer. The earth’s second hottest temperature ever recorded, 134° F, was measured at Furnace Creek*.

Those are a couple of the most notable features of Death Valley National Park, but during the five months I spent there I discovered that there were many things rewarding to find, and most of those things I would have missed if I hadn’t been riding my bicycle.

I would have missed the level of fitness Death Valley propelled me to. I spent the previous winter and summer in one of the flatter portions of Maine. Cycling there kept me fit, but not like Death Valley. When you’re in the valley, especially at Badwater, there’s only one-way to go—up. The easiest way out of the Death Valley is on a road that climbs over 3000 feet in 20 miles. That’s the pass that I tackled first. From there, the roads became more challenging and exciting. Days riding with 4000 feet and 5000 feet of elevation gain, or more, became common. Whether or not I was loaded up with camping gear or out just for a day ride didn’t matter. The challenge was always there. Over the course of the season, I pounded at the roads daring gravity to slow me down. Of course gravity did its job, but with each passing week my legs became stronger, mountain passes became less daunting, and the return trips down those monster climbs became more rewarding.

That’s something else I would have missed without my bike, the challenge and reward of it all. How far could I safely ride this day or that? What discoveries does that canyon next to the road offer? I found that some days were devoted to cycling, some were devoted to hiking, and some were devoted to both.

I sometimes carried my hiking boots, daypack, lots of water, and trusty bike lock in a couple of panniers. After finding a suitable road sign near a promising destination or hiking route, I would lock my bicycle to the signpost confident that bicycle thieves probably were not perusing the roads. After that, it was just a matter of hiking in.

I wandered to some spectacular places on those days—canyons with waterfalls (yes, even waterfalls can be found in Death Valley if you know where to look), mountain peaks, and the ruins of mining operations gone bust. The lack of daylight during the winter months was limiting however, even more so than my energy levels on some days. I would regretfully leave the mountaintop I reached or the deep canyon I was sheltered in only to be surprised by what I could find while cycling back home.

Without my bicycle, I would’ve missed the surprises that even the ordinary roadsides offered. It was sometimes as simple as being surprised by how different the land looked under different light, how hard cycling can be when you just don’t feel as energized as you wish you were, or sometimes it was just the simple presence of wildflowers that surprised me.

Obviously, Death Valley is a very dry place. Furnace Creek averages less than two inches of rainfall per year. Plant life is not abundant. Occasionally though, winter rains can help produce spectacular flower blooms during the late winter and spring seasons. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those winters. Hardly any rain fell, even by Death Valley standards. However, some areas did receive a light rain shower or two. Annual and perennial plants will respond to such things in due time. I must admit, I’m a bit of plant nerd and easily get distracted by things such as roadside wildflowers. Still, it may seem oxymoronic to go to Death Valley to see wildflowers, but in the right place at the right time of the year flowers can appear.

Along a road I pedaled numerous times, light rain had fallen months before. When I came back that way early in March, I was surprised to see the diversity and results of that rain. That day I was sailing down the road on its 6% grade until I noticed the scattering of flowers along the shoulder. I was distracted and surprised enough by them that I barely covered a mile in the next hour. These flowers didn’t produce much along the lines of lushness, but the land no longer felt as desolate as before.

I couldn’t say the same for other areas of the park. “No Services Next 54 Miles.” “No Services Next 72 Miles.” These were some of the road signs I encountered in the Death Valley region. Remoteness and desolation were in no short supply, and that’s part of why people are fascinated with this place. Other than roads, Death Valley has very few developed areas. Yes, there certainly are the typical campgrounds, restaurants, and trinket shops one expects to see in a national park, but the lack of water mercifully limits these services to a very limited number of places. Away from those places, nothing seems to stop the desolation and expansiveness of this place.

The Harrisburg Flats, which the Emigrant Canyon Road crosses, was once the site of a thriving mining community, and like most mining towns in the area it went bust. Now, not much more than rusting tin cans scattered amongst the low shrubs reveal the town’s location. This area, with its evidence of people come and gone and its lack of people today, filled me with the sense that this is about as lonely and desolate of an area as I’ve ever visited.

I cycled up the long haul through Emigrant Canyon for miles and miles to this point with only a handful of automobiles passing by. When I reached the Harrisburg Flats, ten then twenty minutes came and went between cars. I was alone. The old tin cans didn’t offer any company and neither did the northern harrier and the golden eagle I spotted flying nearby. This certainly was a desolate spot, but a blissful one as well. If I had reached this spot in a car after an hour of driving, instead of several hours of pedaling, the emotion of the moment would have been lost. It’s a moment I sometimes think about when streets are crowded and society is noisy.

A lot would be lost without exploring this park on a bicycle. Even the wind added to the experience. The same wind that forced me to walk my bike and flung dirt in my eyes and mouth made plenty of noise. It howled through the edges of the doors and windows of my home. It roared across my ears when I cycled drowning out almost all other sound. But when the wind quit, which it often does (trust me), the silence of Death Valley took over.

During one wonderfully calm day, in the midst of a ride that climbs a vertical mile from Furnace Creek to Dante’s View, I was fortunate to discover just how quiet Death Valley really is. Few cars had passed by me that day in November, which certainly was welcome. However, it wasn’t the lack of cars that I discovered that day. What struck me the most was the immense silence. As I ascended the last few miles to Dante’s View, I only heard two things: the sound of my tires gripping the pavement and my heart pounding in my chest. After I stopped and rested, I didn’t even hear those things.

View of salt flats and mountains

Looking into Death Valley from Dante’s View.

Minus forests, abundant streams, and maybe a conveniently placed bicycle shop, Death Valley offers all a cyclist could want. Ascents of challenging mountain passes, the land’s vast and subtle beauty, the isolation and desolation, the new discoveries, even the wind—it was always these things that brought me back out to ride again. You can even find trees and water if you look for them. Would I have experienced all of these things if I was traveling by automobile? Possibly. Would they have been as fulfilling? Never. The views were never as grand, the flowers never as pretty, and the wind never blew as hard as it did when I was riding my bicycle.

*This is now considered the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth.

Northern Elephant Seals

Northern elephant seals are one of the largest pinnipeds on Earth. Large males can weigh as much as an SUV—four to five thousand pounds. Females are much smaller, topping off at only about one thousand pounds. Since the first few pairs began to haul out at Point Reyes in the 1970s, more and more have arrived each year.

seal resting on cobble beach, dock and boathouse in background

A subadult male elephant seal rests on a cobble beach in the Chimney Rock area at Point Reyes National Seashore.

This aggregation is a seasonal event. Unlike many mammals, the birthing and breeding season coincide in elephant seals. Males arrive first, establishing beach front territory where they’ll be able to establish and protect a harem. Pregnant females show up next, after which they soon give birth. Pups are weaned after about a month of nursing. Like bears, female elephant seals fast while giving birth and nursing. They do not eat, drink, or leave the beach during this time. Consequently, they lose 30-40% of their body weight during this short time. Mating occurs before the females depart to the open ocean. Adult males stick around longer, aiming to increase their chances of mating with as many females as possible.

Males have unique individual calls, and helps them recognize each other and avoid some physical conflict. While my mid January visit was too brief and my viewing was too far away to make such differentiations, there was plenty of activity to see and hear.

The biggest bulls already had established territories and harems. Newborn pups cried nearly constantly, especially when a wave of cold water washed over them. Females barked at each other too. For gregarious creatures, they sure let others hear it when their personal space is encroached upon.

(This place could really benefit from a webcam.)

The main overlook provided the best viewing opportunity to see bulls with harems. The females didn’t seem to be ready to mate, having just given birth or just about to, but that didn’t stop some of the bulls from trying. Forced copulation is not uncommon among elephant seals. Females can be seriously injured and pups crushed by randy males.

I also found good viewing opportunities nearby at the old U.S. Life Saving Station.

elephant seal resting on side with penis emerging

I had no idea what was going on here, but later learned this is an elephant seal’s penis. (Also, I’m told, these are nicknamed a “pink floyd.”)

Northern elephant seals were once thought to be extinct from decades of unrelenting and unregulated hunting, then a small population was found off of the Mexican coast in the early twentieth century. Luckily, the species was given strict protection while their ocean habitat remained largely intact, and their population has grown about six percent per year since the early twentieth century. There are now probably more than 150,000 northern elephant seals.

Many marine mammal species were once so rare that we can’t take them for granted, and we need to ensure their habitat and food sources are protected. If you’re in the neighborhood of Point Reyes National Seashore in January and February, you must stop and see elephant seals at Chimney Rock.

Winter Frogs

At Oregon’s South Beach State Park last month, I heard a chorus of frogs hidden among the grassy dunes. Following the calls, I found a few dozen Pacific tree frogs (Pseudacris regilla) in a shallow ephemeral pool where the males were calling loudly in an effort to attract females. When I stooped low to record a video, they were so loud I should’ve been wearing earplugs.

A few of the males got lucky too.

frogs in amplexus

bow-chicka-wow-wow

These frogs can be active all year when conditions are right. My night at the state park coincided with a stretch of very warm weather that coaxed the frogs out of their torpor. (The daytime high in Newport was 62˚F, a new record for the date.)

Winter weather in coastal Oregon and northern California is often wet and chilly, but low elevation areas rarely experience freezing temperatures. For someone who grew up in Pennsylvania and spent several winters on the Alaska Peninsula, “normal” winter still includes ice and snow, so the climate along Pacific Ocean remains somewhat novel. Seeing frogs in January, especially, enhanced that feeling.

Fault Creep

The San Andreas Fault may be the most famous fault on Earth. For roughly 750 miles (1200 km), it creases California and marks part of the tectonic boundary between the North American and Pacific plates. It creates tangible examples for us to see plate tectonics in action.

Aerial view of landscape with fault line at center right.

The San Andreas Fault cleaves the land on the Carrizo plain. Photo courtesy of Ikluft and Wikipedia.

For about 75 miles, California State Route 25 (CA 25) roughly traces the path of the San Andreas Fault as the highway passes through an open valley filled with cattle ranches. (If you’re visiting the east side of Pinnacles National Park, you’ll drive this road.) From the ground, the fault is relatively hidden in most places even though the highway crosses it several times. On Google Earth, it shows a bit more clearly.

Google Earth image of creek valley with buildings at center.

A group of buildings, sitting just to the east of CA 25, is bisected by the San Andreas Fault. The red line marks the fault’s approximate location.

This part of the fault creeps along at a slow rate, maybe an inch per year. When covered by soil and vegetation, the resulting displacement would be nearly invisible on a yearly basis. When we pave the landscape with asphalt or concrete, however, the fault’s movement can manifest itself in ways that are easy to see.

About a ten-minute drive north of Pinnacles National Park’s east entrance the San Andreas Fault crosses CA 25. Here, the San Andreas Fault is slowly tearing the pavement apart.

Road with crack running from middle left to lower right.

This is essentially the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. Land and water on the fault’s west and south side is moving north relative to the North American continent.

Person standing on road. Land to right is North American plate. Land on lower left is Pacific plate.

Yours truly straddles the plate boundary between North America and the Pacific.

According to Greg Hayes on his Geotripper blog, this section of road was repaved in 2008. When he visited this site in 2017, the yellow center line paint had not yet split. When I stopped on the morning of January 31, 2018, the paint was clearly cracked.

Crack in pavement across yellow line.

View is looking north.

This movement has been going on for millions of years. The rocks of Pinnacles National Park, now most famous for scenery and condors, are part of a volcanic field that erupted almost 200 miles to the south. Since then, movement along the San Andreas has displaced the rocks northward, leaving about a third of the volcanic field behind.

Road pavement with crack. Text reads "To Alaska" and "North"

Land on the south and west side of the San Andreas Fault is on track to meet Alaska in a couple hundred million years.

The crack in the pavement is the current surface expression of the fault’s movement. Fault creep is evident elsewhere in California. In Hayward, creep along the Hayward Fault is splitting the city hall in half.

This section of the San Andreas provides a rare opportunity to observe the Earth’s tectonic plates in motion. Because it happens over immense time scales, geologic change is most often undramatic and unnoticed. It happens slowly in rivulets of erosion on a hillside, waves reworking sand on a beach, dust blown in the wind, and creep along faults. As passengers on Earth’s brittle crust, we’re always moving relatively speaking.

Google Earth image of road moving north to south.

You can visit this site on CA 25 at 36°35’54.27″N, 121°11’40.19″W. Please be cautious though; this is a busy highway with a high speed limit. It’s also surrounded by private land, but you can find a couple of small pullouts about a hundred yards from the fault.