Confessions of an EV Driver

Mid winter is the wonderful time of year when I wake up every morning wondering if I need to shovel snow. To be honest, I don’t mind the chore when I have the time to do it. I do mind that its work that I wouldn’t have to do if my household wasn’t reliant on a car. I’m thankful, though, that we made the move away from gas guzzlers. Our primary vehicles are my bicycles and an electric car.

You’ve probably seen the marketing campaigns for electric vehicles (EV) or a charging station along a highway. But given that EVs still represent a small portion of cars on the road then maybe you haven’t spoken to anyone who owns or drives one. As one such person, please allow me to share some of the advantages and frustrations of electric vehicles. 

My wife and I purchased a Chevy Bolt in 2019 when we lived in western Washington. She had an unreasonably long commute, her 2011 Subaru Forester wasn’t as efficient with gas compared to its youth, and gas had been hovering around $3.50 per gallon or higher at the time. Plus, the climate and pollution impacts of its internal combustion engines wasn’t something that I could ignore anymore. I did some basic math and found that driving an EV would be far less expensive than driving her Forester. We made the purchase and haven’t looked back. (BTW, we still own the gas guzzler, but we’ve hardly driven it in the last three years.)

We plug in the EV at home at our convenience and only need to consider using a commercial charging station on trips more than 200 miles. There’s no engine oil or transmission fluid to worry about. In fact, the only liquid I’ve ever given the car has been for the windshield washer. The Bolt has an approximately 65 kw battery* and we pay about $0.16 per kilowatt-hour for electricity so it costs us $10.50 to fully charge the car. Its range in summer is about 300 miles. In winter, it’s closer to 250 or 200 miles depending on how cold the air temperature is and how much we need to run the heat and defroster (more on that later).

*The battery’s true capacity might be a little less than this it’s but definitely above 60 kilowatts.

To compare that to a gas-powered car, let’s buy 3 gallons of gas at $3.50 per gallon, which is $10.50, exactly what it would cost us to fully charge the Bolt from a near dead battery. A gas car would need to get 67 miles per gallon to equal the Bolt’s charging cost when the batteries provide 200 miles of driving range. A gas car would need to get 100 miles per gallon to equal the Bolt over 300 miles. That’s just money, though, not true efficiency. A battery-powered car is able to apply more than 60% of its energy under ideal conditions toward propelling the vehicle. An internal combustion engine in a car is remarkably inefficient, using only 12-30% of its energy to move a vehicle forward.

Overall, the Bolt is quiet, clean (there are no emissions), and far cheaper to use than the Forester, yet we’ve never taken it on an extended trip until recently. In late November and early December 2022, my wife and I drove from northern Maine to Pittsburgh to Cleveland and back. We knew that we’d need a little more patience and time to get where we wanted to go. 

Nov. 23: Home to Augusta, Maine

Distance: ~200 miles.
Northern Maine is a bit of a EV charging station desert. Even Tesla, which has an extensive charging network for their vehicles, only has one charging station north of Bangor currently.

Screen shot from website PlugShare showing Maine north of Bangor. Green and orange icons represent EV charging stations. Quebec to the west has many. New Brunswick to the east has a line of them along their highways. Northern Maine has v
Northern Maine has very few public EV charging stations along the public road corridors. Screen capture from

We’ve made the mistake of almost running out of juice a couple of times returning home from central and southern Maine. It’s a bit alarming when the car no longer tells you an estimated range, starts beeping warnings, and flashes a low battery warning light. Thankfully, there’s no worry for us today. We leave home with a full charge and the weather cooperates with above freezing air temperatures. After 200 miles of mostly interstate driving, we use a high capacity (level 3) ChargePoint charger for about 45 minutes south of Augusta to push the battery up to about 66%. 

This being the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a lot of people were on the road. At the Gardiner rest stop on I-95, there are four L3 chargers, but only two were working reliably that evening and both were occupied when we arrived. We wait about a half hour for a space at a working charger. This turned out to be a prologue. High demand and too few working chargers would be a repeated frustration over the next several days of travel. It wasn’t the waiting that was the issue, necessarily, but waiting, instead, simply because the charging stations aren’t working.

Nov. 25 Augusta, Maine to Springfield, Massachusetts. 

Distance: ~250 miles.
During the past day and half, we mooched electricity from a regular wall outlet at my in-laws to top off the car’s battery. Starting the day fully charged, we drive south. At the Kittery rest stop just north of the Maine/New Hampshire border, one of the level 3 ChargePoint chargers is occupied while the other isn’t working. However, our afternoon destination is Lowell National Historical Park and we have more than enough juice to get there. At Lowell, we park in a garage with a level 2 charger, which is equivalent to our plug at home. This charges at about 6 kw per hour while we visit the national historic site and eat a late lunch. 

GIF of industrial weaving loom from 1920s. Rods move forward and back, up and down, to drive cotton threads into cloth.
A 1920s era weaving loom at the Boott Cotton Mills at Lowell National Historical Park.

Afterward, we drive in the dark via various interstate highways. I have trouble connecting the the car to a large bank of level 3 Electrify America chargers at a mall. It’s probably just a quirk of the electronics or car’s charging port because the issue repeats at several stations. The charging cords are stiff and heavy, which might hinder a proper connection. I found that holding the plug firmly while the charger initiates gets the station to connect without further issue. In Springfield we spend the night in a hotel with a L2 charger and plug in overnight. 

Nov. 26 Springfield, Massachusetts to East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

Distance: ~200 miles.
Breakfast is at an Italian bakery with a most excellent chocolate cannoli. We then spend an hour at the museum for Springfield Armory National Historic Site. On the drive south through Connecticut, the weather is mild with temperatures in the 40˚s and 50˚s F. The Bolt continues to get about 4 miles per kilowatt even while driving 65 miles per hour most of the way.

We stop at an Electrify America L3 charger located in a Walmart parking lot in Newburg, NY. A line of people already wait there. Two of the four chargers are out of service on one of the year’s busiest weekends for travel. We stay only about 15 minutes then leave when it looks like our place in the queue wouldn’t get us access to a working charger for at least an hour. This turned out to be the right choice anyway. There are few things I consider less pleasant than visiting Walmart and they are doubly hellish spaces on the weekend after Thanksgiving when the worst of the mass-consumption brainwashing compels people to buy garbage that they don’t need.

Our alternative was another level 3 charger about 30 miles away in Middletown, NY. This turned out to be one of the more enjoyable places we stopped to charge. The charger worked without issue, it accepted a credit card so we didn’t have to download and use a special app, and there was no one else waiting to charge, I could walk through the town to stretch my legs, and there were a few restaurants within easy walking distance. More towns should put EV chargers in their city center rather than sprawling parking lots surrounding monuments to runaway consumerism.

We detour through Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area at sunset on the way to our night’s destination. I wish we would’ve had more daylight to explore the forest and river. Our hotel for the night advertised an EV charger but neither of the two stations are working when we get there (lesson: call ahead and ask). We poach some electricity by using a 110 volt wall outlet on the outside of the hotel.

River and hillsides covered in trees. River is in shadow and flows toward lower right. Low sun lights trees on far bank in orange glow. Trees are bare of leaves due to the late fall season.
The Delaware River at sunset.

Nov. 27: East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Distance: ~200 miles.
We leave the hotel with the car’s battery charged to about 60%, which is more than enough to get us to an Electrify America L3 charger in Allentown. It’s early on a Sunday morning but three of the four charging spots are occupied and the fourth doesn’t work. We wait about 20 minutes to plug in to jump the battery from about 45% to 66%—enough to probably get us to Gettysburg without issue. We assist a couple who are driving a new Bolt but have never stopped at one of these chargers before.

After a rainy walk through Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, we plug into a free level 2 charger while we eat lunch at Furnace Creek State Park. I would’ve liked to have spent more time exploring here if it weren’t for the limited daylight hours of late fall.

We make it to Gettysburg with about 25% of our battery left and plug in for the evening at a hotel. At dusk, I walk along a nearby section of the battlefield and national cemetery feeling profoundly sad for the pain and death that happened there. Later, I can’t sleep and get up to unplug the car after it is fully charged at 1 a.m., you know, just in case some other EV drives up in the middle of the night.

U.S. Civil War cannons face away toward horizon. Deep overcast skies and bare trees fill the scene.
Canons near where U.S. troops repelled the last Confederate assault during the Battle of Gettysburg. In less than an hour on July 3, 1863, thousands of people died in the nearby fields.

Nov. 28: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Distance: ~200 miles.
We tour the park’s museum and battlefield in the morning. The level 3 chargers at the museum don’t work so I’m glad for the hotel’s overnight charging option. 

We mostly follow U.S. 30 to Pittsburgh, which is a mountainous route by PA standards. On the steep, long climbs the car uses a lot of electricity, but on the way down we recoup some of that energy using the regenerative braking system. This helps to milk the best range out of the battery. Trying to drive in the most efficient manner also motivates you to not drive like an asshole. We add a kilowatt of energy to the battery when dropping off Laurel Ridge into Ligonier.

In Bedford, we wait about 15 minutes for space at a level 3 charger. Almost predictably, one of the four chargers was out of order. We leave after bumping the battery up to 80% full since at least two other EVs are waiting in line.

A stop at the Flight 93 National Memorial breaks up the day but triggers a lot of emotions. Around dinner time, we get to Pittsburgh with about half the battery’s charge left in the tank. At my sister’s house we can’t plug in for the night. Her house is perched on a steep hill—one of those Pittsburgh houses you need to ascend the equivalent of two flights of stairs to get into. Adopting an EV would be a challenge for her and others who live where the only parking option is on the street. (And, FWIW, my sister doesn’t own a car which is much more of an environmentally friendly choice than owning an EV. She does, however, have a Pittsburgh toilet.)

Nov. 29: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cleveland, Ohio

Distance: ~170 miles.
At a gas station surrounded by four to six lane highways in Cranberry, northwest of Pittsburgh, two of the four Electrify America chargers aren’t working. Luckily, we only had to wait about 5 minutes for a spot. Once plugged in, our charge speed varied between 20 – 30 kw, which is typical for our Bolt at all level 3 chargers we’ve used. Since our car is a 2019 model, the electrical system doesn’t seem accept the same amount of juice as a newer versions. Eavesdropping on the charging speeds of most other EVs plugged in at the same time, they’ll get 50, 75, even 125 kw of power.

I get dropped off to visit my mom for a few days while my other half continues to Cleveland for a conference. Before she departs, I take the car to the level 2 charger at Jennings Environmental Education Center, which I love. It boasts an extensive, well maintained trail system that takes you through some unique habitats with locally endangered species. I grew up nearby but didn’t fully appreciate the spot when I was younger. The car is almost fully charged when my wife needs to leave about three hours later. She drives to Cleveland without needing to stop anywhere to charge.

A few days later, I take a bus from downtown Pittsburgh to downtown Cleveland in the morning. My wife parked the EV at a nearby garage to charge during the morning so I go pick it up. The charge was free but parking in the garage was expensive.

Dec. 3: Cleveland, Ohio to Canandaigua, New York

Distance: ~275 miles.
We leave Cleveland with a full charge and head east on I-90. Some of the level 3 chargers on the way to Buffalo were reportedly not working (surprise!) so we stop in Erie after about 100 miles of driving. No one is at the Electrify America station when we arrive. The chargers are in another crummy location—another Walmart parking lot surrounded by more parking lots and big box stores. At least we can see the lake in the distance.

The weather remains mild for the season and the roads are free of snow. Outside of Buffalo, we stop at another level three Electrify America station where, once again, only 3 out of 4 chargers are working. It’s located at another Walmart in retail sprawl. Ugh. But it gives us the juice to get us to our night’s destination with a 50 mile buffer in case the hotel’s charger doesn’t work, which at first it did not.

Unable to charge, I go to the hotel’s front desk to find that the attendant couldn’t help because there was no maintenance person on duty that day. This was a non-networked station, which meant that there was no customer service to call. I searched and found a wall outlet to plug into but decided to try the charger again after noticing that the light indicating a fault error on the charger was off. I plugged in and it worked, thankfully.

Temperatures remained in the 40˚s throughout the day and the car got about 4 mi/kw again despite driving almost entirely at interstate speeds of about 65 miles per hour.

Dec. 4: Canandaigua, New York to Saratoga Springs, New York

Distance: ~233 miles.
Full charge by the morning. We get to Women’s Rights National Historic Site to explore its museum as soon as it opens. After continuing east, we take a break to walk outside the fort at Fort Stanwix National Monument even though the visitor center, fort, and the parking garage with a charger are closed for the day. We hit a L3 charger in downtown Utica, and spent the charging time looking for a place for me to pee, finally deciding just to sneak into a hotel and use their restroom since the few open shops didn’t provide the proper facilities. It was getting to a point where I was considering using an alley. After a short stop to Saratoga National Historical Park at sunset, we charge the car overnight at a hotel in Saratoga Springs.

Dec. 5: Saratoga Springs, New York to Augusta, Maine

Distance: ~300 miles.
We drive a meandering and hilly route back to Maine through Vermont (one of three U.S. states I’d yet to visit) and New Hampshire. In Rutland, VT, we stop at a L3 Charge Point charger for about 45 minutes to get the battery up to 80 percent. One of two wasn’t working but luckily no one was at the chargers when we arrived. Through New Hampshire and back in Maine at dusk, we stop at another L3 charger in Windham. This was also surrounded by retail sprawl but at least there was a decent sushi restaurant nearby where we could eat dinner while the car did its thing. Finally, and less than 10 miles from the in-laws’ house, we use the L3 chargers at the West Gardiner rest area on I-95. 

Dec. 6: Augusta, Maine to Home

Distance: 200 miles.
By jumping the car’s batteries back up to 80% the night before and combining that with the juice we get from the in-laws’ 110v wall outlet overnight we have a near full charge by morning when we make our way home. Temperatures stay in the 40˚s F. We make it home with about one-third of the battery to spare.

You may have noticed that we weren’t in a hurry. Our itinerary was relaxed, giving us the opportunity to take lots of breaks and make many stops. We looked for charging stations more frequently than necessary too since so many were broken. I didn’t want to deplete the battery too far and limp to a charger that didn’t work. We were also fortunate on the road trip since there was no particularly cold weather or snow. As I write this in late January, I’ve had plenty of time to become reacquainted with the wintertime complications of the EV driving experience. 

Car parked in deep snow. Car remains snow covered. A snow shovel sticks upright in snow to left of car. A row of snow-covered trees fill the background.
The Bolt at home after a snow storm.

First, the Bolt’s batteries are certainly less efficient when temperatures are below 30˚F (-1˚C). This is especially true when temperatures are below 10˚F (-18˚C). We don’t have a garage (and there’s no way I’m building one), so the car sits outside and during cold days the batteries will use some energy to condition themselves for more optimal performance. Using any climate control accessories like the windshield defroster and heater also eats noticeably into the batteries’ energy stores. Instead of the 300 miles per full charge the Bolt gets in the summer, it is much closer to 200 miles and sometimes less in winter. Gas guzzlers are far less efficient in cold weather too. To me, however, the impacts to the EV’s driving range seem more conspicuous compared to a traditional car.

I should note that I don’t typically enjoy driving and I often find road trips to be frustrating endeavors. The pace is too quick and travel by car insulates you from the landscape in a negative way. And, before you comment about how EVs are not the best solution to our transportation issues and climate change woes: I agree. Roadway deaths in the U.S. are as high or higher than ever before even as cars get safer. Automobiles are a disaster for wildlife too. Tires leach chemicals that kill salmon, and hundreds of millions of vertebrate animals in the U.S. are killed when they are struck by cars. In more ways than one, EVs perpetuate this unacceptable status quo. My favorite vehicle remains my trusty steed, Rocinante, and we certainly need to prioritize passenger trains, buses, and safe biking routes over more cars. The environmental impacts of mining minerals to produce EV batteries can’t be ignored either.

And, before you comment about how EV’s are too inconvenient to usurp internal combustion engines for commuting and long-distance passenger travel, please consider instead that convenience should not be our first consideration in today’s world. Certainly not with a very real climate crisis. We could’ve and should’ve started transitioning to renewable energy and electrifying our transportation grid in the 1990s when it was already clear that climate change was coming fast. But our elected leaders did virtually nothing and the public wasn’t demanding change, partly because the threat seemed abstract and distant (at least that’s how I remember thinking about it; people—including me—generally aren’t good at seeing past our immediate needs and wants) and also because fossil fuel companies used a disinformation campaign straight out of the tobacco company playbook to successfully sow doubt about climate science and create apathy for change within the public. It worked on me too. I can remember stating that the consequences of climate change were not well understood during programs that I gave as a park ranger. Now the stakes are higher and the changes necessary to stave off the worst climate impacts are harder. Convenience, therefore, cannot rule the day. That opportunity is long gone.

So if you’re going to buy a car or another car, should it be an EV? Get a traditional bicycle or an electric-assist bicycle, first. Then if that can’t work for you then get an EV. If it’s not for the pollution benefits, then get it for the low operating and maintenance cost (cheap to drive, no oil changes, no expensive gas, etc). Although a little more patience is necessary on long trips currently, an EV will get you where you need to go.

Ten Years of Bear Cam and Counting

Last summer, celebrated the 10th anniversary of the bear cams at Brooks River in Katmai National Park. These webcams offer an in-depth look at the behavior and ecology of a population of brown bears, allow us to observe the same individual bears over many years–giving us the chance to learn about their personalities and habits–and provide a platform for rangers and other experts to host live programs and commentary about the bears and their stories. It’s a wildlife watching experience like no other.

As part of the celebration, I chose to highlight some the moments that I thought were most memorable from the last ten years of bear cam. Some explore point-in-time events. Others celebrate the behavior of individual bears who have left their mark on Brooks River in ways we can’t forget or ignore. Each was unforgettable from my perspective. I hope you enjoy them.

Most Defensive Mother: 128 Grazer 

Grazer is an archetypal mother bear. Don’t get in her way and don’t approach her cubs.

Lefty Learns to Fish at Brooks Falls

Old bears can definitely learn new tricks. In July 2015, we watched a fully mature adult male brown bear figure out how to fish where he’d never fished before.

Otis Eats 42 Salmon in a Sitting

Be awed by the capacity of his stomach.

Death of 451’s Spring Cub

When a bear cub falls ill the world will watch.

503’s Saga

A lone yearling finds a new family.

Reign of 856

Few bears will ever experience the prolonged dominance and advantage earned by 856.

2020 Salmon Smorgasbord

What happens when bears have access to unlimited salmon? The 2020 salmon run gave us the answer.

History of Fat Bear Week

A goofy idea becomes a world famous internet sensation.

We are Family: 909, 910, and Cubs

Sister bears reunite while raising cubs to create an extended family.

If that’s not enough, the bear cam community complied links to all of our bear cam live events from 2022. Two stand out in my mind: 1. The impromptu Q&A about a fight between and mother bear and a dominant male, and 2. The bear cam 10th anniversary live chat.

We’ve seen a lot of special moments on the cams during the last ten summers–perhaps too many to recall–so these are only a small snippet of the larger story. What are your most memorable moments from the bear cams?

A Big Night for Amphibians

In many ways winter is a glorious season. There’s nothing quite like the silence of the forest during a winter storm, when the landscape is remade under falling snow. During March, however, when snow has cloaked the land for months and summer seems a distant memory, I begin to dream of greener pastures, so to speak.

I’m not the only one who feels the pull of spring. For many animals, spring is not only a season of renewal but also one of frenzied business. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the end of winter in the northeast U.S. like the return of the amphibians.

close up view of spotted salamander crawling through grass. photo taken at eye level with salamander.
Spotted salamander.

Amphibians in the northeast U.S. lead relatively inconspicuous lives. During summer, I’m lucky to see a handful of spring peepers as I tromp through the forest or poke around my garden. Toads make their rounds, yet are camouflaged well enough to typically escape detection unless they hop. I might spot some bull and green frogs lurking on the edge of a pond, eyeing me warily, but I hear them calling far more often then I see them. Except for the boldly colored red efts or eastern newts, I typically don’t see salamanders unless I search the undersides of down logs, and I won’t see the more fossorial of salamanders, such as the spotted salamander, at all when they inhabit their burrows.

During winter, amphibians are even harder to come by. Tucked within the forest duff, wood frogs and spring peepers survive winter frozen like a popsicle (and I mean, actually frozen, not just cold). Adult newts remain hidden under the ice of their home pond. Spotted salamanders undergo their own form of hibernation in burrows they’ve appropriated from other animals.

Winter is often loath to end in Maine and the thaw usually progresses in spurts. In March or April, the warm days begin to outnumber the subfreezing. Meltwater and perhaps a cool drizzle percolates through crusty snow to the forest floor. Eventually, a storm front pushes through bringing overnight rain instead of snow. If the ground is mostly snow free and the rain coincides with temperatures above 40˚ F, I know it’s time to don my trusty yellow rain slicker and rubber boots for a walk in the dark. The mass amphibian migration nicknamed the Big Night has arrived.

close up view of spotted salamander. photo taken at eye level with salamander.
“Feeling cute. Might delete later,” says this spotted salamander.

Early spring this year brought unusually dry and warm weather in my region. The two plus feet of snowpack that lingered into mid March disappeared rapidly, but no rain came until April 10. That evening, right around 8 p.m., a light drizzle began to fall. Although I was unsure if it would be enough to initiate the amphibian migration, I only walked a few hundred yards along my road before I found out.

On the broken pavement, headed north to a small pond, sat a wood frog. Soon after, I found a spring peeper and then a gray tree frog. The amphibians were certainly on the move.

Wood frog.
overhead look at spring peeper on road
Spring peeper.
close up look of gray tree frog. photo is taken at eye level with frog.
Gray tree frog.

Activity along the next half mile of road was unsurprisingly sparse as it descended through forest without any close-by vernal pools or ponds. The next hillside, however, brought me through a true hotspot. I could hardly walk 50 feet without finding one or more spotted salamanders on the road.

close up view
A spotted salamander glares at me as it crosses the road.
close up view of blue-spotted salamander. Head is at center and facing right.
Blue-spotted and Jefferson’s salamander form a hybrid complex in Maine. This fine specimen I found is likely a hybrid.

While the frogs I had seen earlier live above ground during the active months, spotted salamanders live the majority of their lives underground or at least hidden under leaf litter, a lifestyle typical of the “mole salamanders” in the genus Ambystoma. They are conspicuous only during their brief breeding period in spring. Spotted salamanders return to reproduce in the same pond or vernal pool where they were spawned only to leave the water and return to their mole-like habits a few days later.

For me, a fellow who is increasingly interested in all critters small, the Big Night is one of the best evenings of the year. For the critters I seek, though, the Big Night can be one of the most dangerous experiences of their lives. Many do not survive their attempt to cross the road.

For wildlife, roads and motor vehicles are one of humanity’s most hazardous inventions. Although estimates vary widely, we probably kill hundreds of millions of vertebrate animals (and maybe even as many as one billion animals) on roads in the U.S. every year. This includes somewhere between 89 and 340 million birds. In 2015-2016, according to State Farm, 1.3 million collisions with large mammals cause enough vehicle damage for drivers to file insurance claims. Pennsylvania drivers led the charge with more than 133,000 wildlife-collision insurance claims. (I grew up and learned to drive in Pennsylvania and have unfortunately experienced more than one collision with deer. I’m not sure I have any family members in PA who haven’t struck deer in a car. Yay for the Keystone State.)

Since small animals like salamanders and frogs don’t cause vehicle damage, their road-caused mortality seems to be poorly quantified compared to large animals. A study from Massachusetts, though, found that motor vehicles are significant source of mortality for individual spotted salamanders and could lead to population extirpation if road mortality reached 20-30 percent of a population. Near prime breeding habitat, a Big Night migration can bring hundreds of amphibians onto roadways per hour. Afterward, when juvenile and adult amphibians disperse from their aquatic breeding habitat, road mortality can also be significant. However, dispersal from breeding ponds is more diffuse in time and space than the initial migration, and we know even less about road mortality during that phase of their lives.

Amphibians aren’t random users of the landscape. They seek out particular habitats. Spotted salamanders, for example, generally breed in the same water bodies where they were born. The collective migration to breeding ponds can funnel many individuals into a small area. This is where data gathering becomes an important conservation tool, especially if we are to lessen their risk of becoming road kill.

On April 10, I walked about three miles between 8 and 11 p.m. (the Big Night isn’t a fitness walk), but more than half of the salamanders I saw crossed the road within a single 100-yard stretch. On April 17, with just the barest spittle of rain falling, I walked the same road and saw no amphibians on it except within the same 100-yard section.

Google Earth image with yellow pins concentrated at center of image. Roadway
In this Google Earth image the yellow pins mark a concentrated area of spotted salamander sightings on April 10, 2021. A small pond at bottom-center is the salamanders’ destination. The mature forest north of the road offers salamanders good habitat the rest of the year.

I’m fortunate to live along a quiet, rural road where traffic is light even on the busiest days. During my Big Night walks, I may only see three or four cars at most. Still, I find road kill salamanders. So, removing live amphibians from the roadway (in the direction they are headed, of course) gets them out of harms way.

One great thing about the Big Night is that it provides a valid excuse to handle frogs and salamanders. Gently moving them from the traffic lanes can help ensure they don’t become pancakes under car tires.

Road hazards for wildlife is an issue that needs more attention from our policy makers and highway departments. To address it, we need, like so many things, systemic change. Road design must consider the safety of the most vulnerable—such as pedestrians, cyclists, and wildlife—before the convenience of motorists.

Individually, we can help by joining community science efforts such as the Big Night to document amphibian migrations and amphibian road mortality. We can also drive less, drive slower, and avoid driving at night when possible. Perhaps you might even be able to convince your town to temporally close roads during springtime amphibian migrations or build structures to guide amphibians under roads safely.

Amphibians bridge the aquatic and terrestrial worlds. They hail from an era in Earth’s history when vertebrates had yet to thoroughly colonize the continents. Their longevity as a taxonomic order (amphibians first appeared more than 350 million years ago) underscores that the strategy works. Yet, amphibians face increasingly dire challenges due to roads, disease, habitat loss, non-native species, the exotic wildlife trade, and climate change. Collectively, amphibians are the most threatened group of animals on the planet. Since we are the collective cause of these threats, then we owe it to amphibians to correct them.

The Big Night represents the transition between winter dormancy and the frenzied attempts of many amphibians to reproduce. Before documenting their migration across my road during the past two years, I had no idea that most spotted salamanders funneled to and crossed it along a single 100-yard long section. Searching for amphibians along roadways has helped me better understand their lives and their vulnerabilities in an increasingly human-dominated world.

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

Cycling North Cascades Highway

Last week, clear weather and a day off combined to allow Rocinante (yes, I name my bicycles and you should too) and I to ride the North Cascades Highway through Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Okanogan National Forest to Rainy Pass. This road, also known as Washington Route 20, is the last major highway constructed over the Cascades in Washington. It bisects one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48 and traverses a densely mountainous region that repeatedly confused 19th century explorers.

So many roads skirt mountains, but on this one I felt like I was truly in them. The highway, while never extremely steep, climbs considerably from Seattle City Light’s company town of Newhalem to Rainy Pass and beyond. For someone who is easily distracted by scenery, wildlife, and plants though, it also offers many excuses to slow the pace of travel. Just east of Newhalem, for example, lies the remnants of the Skagit River gorge.

narrow mountain valley

The Skagit River gorge

Beginning in the 1920s, the Seattle City Light harvested the energy of the Skagit in a series of dams. Collectively, these dams provide twenty percent of Seattle’s electricity.

mountain valley with dam and lake

Gorge Dam is the first of three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River. Skagit gorge runs empty almost always because the river’s water is diverted from Gorge Dam through a tunnel to a powerhouse in Newhalem.

Before these dams were constructed, no road penetrated this section of Cascades. Miners and homesteaders had to navigate the gorge’s cliffs along a precarious “Goat Trail” above the raging river. My journey via bicycle was a bit easier than the Goat Trail despite the elevation gain. The road climbs up and down through the gorge then ascends again before skirting the southern shore of Diablo Lake, the second reservoir on the Skagit. This stretch of road combined with the continued climb above Ross Lake, in my opinion, is the toughest section for cyclists along the highway.

view of mountains and lake

Diablo Lake is deep in the heart of the North Cascades. Its aquamarine color is the product of glacial flour backscattering blue and green wavelengths of light.]

view of mountains and lake with coniferous trees in foreground

Ross Lake is the highest and largest reservoir in the Skagit watershed.

Even though Diablo and Ross lakes’ water flow west into Skagit River and Puget Sound, the reservoirs lie east of the Cascade crest. Here, a drier forest grows compared to the wetter lowlands downstream of Newhalem. The contrast is especially apparent on sunny slopes where snow doesn’t linger in spring. Douglas-firs and lodgepole pines tolerate these conditions well. At lower elevations along southern Ross Lake, pockets of ponderosa pines, a species much more common on warmer drier soils to the east, also linger.

Above Ross Lake, the road grade lessens easing the burden on my legs and lungs. Sight lines and road shoulder widths increased too, making the highway safer for bicycles. With increased elevation, the forest composition shifted to include some western white pine then lots of mountain hemlock and subalpine fir. With a moderate tailwind, I could pedal uphill and still enjoy views of the montane forest and craggy, snow-covered mountains bordering each side of the highway.

view of mountain peak and conifer treesAfter 35 miles of cycling and over 5,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain, I ate lunch at Rainy Pass (el. 4,855 feet). Fifty-three weeks ago, I cycled over this pass as part of a larger bicycle trip around the North Cascades area. That day was chilly and wet. I encountered frosty conditions and fresh snow from the previous night.

montane forest with light snow at higher elevation

Forest at Rainy Pass on June 14, 2016. Note the light snow on the trees.

On this ride however, I needed only a light windbreaker.

view of road surrounded by coniferous trees and mountain in background

Rainy Pass on June 21, 2017.

The North Cascades Highway is also part of Adventure Cycling’s Northern Tier route. I knew I’d see touring cyclists pushing to the pass and beyond and I knew they’d be hungry so I brought candy bars to give away to those out for the long haul. When I rode across the country on my bike in 2004, there were many days where I felt like I couldn’t eat enough and many people offered food, a lawn to camp on, or even a room in their home. My free chocolate was a very small attempt to reciprocate a bit of that generosity.

A little surprisingly, almost all the touring cyclists I encountered before Rainy Pass kindly rejected my offer of empty calories. If they were creeped out by a stranger peddling candy, then they hid their concerns well. (Maybe my approach was a little off—“Hey, want some candy bars?” said the weirdo who approached you on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.) More likely though, my offer came too early in the day when energy from breakfast still lingered. At Rainy Pass, the same cyclists gladly accepted the treats.

I spoke with cyclists from Germany, Great Britain, and a group from Massachusetts raising awareness of epilepsy.

Charlie's group at Rainy Pass_06212017

Clif Read (center) and some of his riding companions pause at Rainy Pass on their tour to raise awareness of epilepsy. Follow their journey at

As unprepared as I was, carrying little more than a windbreaker and some peanuts, I felt an urge to continue my ride, joining the others heading east toward the Atlantic Ocean. I suppressed that travel bug though and let the long-distance cyclists continued on their way while I turned back west to enjoy the mostly downhill ride into the Skagit Valley.



Alaska vs the Feds: Predator Control on National Wildlife Refuges

Should Alaska be permitted to implement predator control measures on Alaska’s national wildlife refuges? The feds say no, but a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.J.R. 69 and its equivalent in the Senate, S.J. 18, will rescind U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations that prohibit predator control methods on national wildlife refuges in Alaska, specifically:

  • Taking black or brown bear cubs or sows with cubs (exception allowed for resident hunters to take black bear cubs or sows with cubs under customary and traditional use activities at a den site October 15-April 30 in specific game management units in accordance with State law);
  • Taking brown bears over bait;
  • Taking of bears using traps or snares;
  • Taking wolves and coyotes during the denning season (May 1-August 9); and
  • Taking bears from an aircraft or on the same day as air travel has occurred. The take of wolves or wolverines from an aircraft or on the same day as air travel has occurred is already prohibited under current refuge regulations.

Alaska and the Alaska congressional delegation contend the state should continue to manage wildlife harvest on refuges. Rep. Don Young, H.J.R. 69’s sponsor, argues that the USFWS regs are an unacceptable federal overreach. He believes wildlife management should be left to the state of Alaska. (H.J.R. 69 already passed the House of Representatives by a 225 to 193 vote.)

However, national wildlife refuge managers in Alaska determined the “hunting” practices adopted by the state of Alaska are predator control, which is an unnecessary and prohibited manipulation of ecosystem processes on national wildlife refuges. The state has said the Feds can’t prove it’s predator control, but the hunting methods and the species they target are designed to reduce predator populations. By allowing those methods, the Alaska Board of Game forced the USFWS’s hand, as well as that of the National Park Service who manages national preserves in Alaska.

Compared to the USFWS regs, the NPS has very similar regulations on the books for hunting in national preserves. The NPS regs will not be affected by H.J.R. 69 or S.J. 18, although Alaska has sued the NPS over it. Here’s why the NPS justifies the prohibition:

“In the last several years, the State of Alaska has allowed an increasing number of liberalized methods of hunting and trapping wildlife and extended seasons to increase opportunities to harvest predator species.

“These practices are not consistent with the NPS’s implementation of ANILCA’s authorization of sport hunting and trapping in national preserves. To the extent such practices are intended or reasonably likely to manipulate wildlife populations for harvest purposes or alter natural wildlife behaviors, they are not consistent with NPS management policies implementing the NPS Organic Act or the sections of ANILCA that established the national preserves in Alaska. Additional liberalizations by the State that are inconsistent with NPS management directives, policies, and federal law are anticipated in the future.”

Here’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s justification in a nutshell:

“The different purposes of State and Federal laws and the increased focus on predator control by the State have resulted in the need for FWS to deviate, in certain respects, from applying State regulations within refuges. This is because predator-prey interactions represent a dynamic and foundational ecological process in Alaska’s arctic and subarctic ecosystems, and are a major driver of ecosystem function. State regulations allowing activities on refuges in Alaska that are inconsistent with the conservation of fish and wildlife populations and their habitats in their natural diversity, or the maintenance of biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health, are in direct conflict with our legal mandates for administering refuges in Alaska under ANILCA, the Improvement Act, and the Wilderness Act, as well as with applicable agency policies (601 FW 3, 610 FW 2, and 605 FW 2).

“In managing for natural diversity, FWS conserves, protects, and manages all fish and wildlife populations within a particular wildlife refuge system unit in the natural `mix,’ not to emphasize management activities favoring one species to the detriment of another. FWS assures that habitat diversity is maintained through natural means on refuges in Alaska, avoiding artificial developments and habitat manipulation programs, whenever possible. FWS fully recognizes and considers that rural residents use, and are often dependent on, refuge resources for subsistence purposes, and FWS manages for this use consistent with the conservation of species and habitats in their natural diversity.”

As Don Young contends, this is a state versus federal rights issue. However, he doesn’t attempt to disprove the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services justifications for the regulations (which, again, prohibit the state’s predator control practices on national wildlife refuges). The congressman’s efforts through H.J.R 69 is an attempt to limit the authority of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. (Alaska’s senators, Sullivan and Murkowski, sponsor S.J. 18, the Senate equivalent of H.J.R. 69.)

This bill isn’t just about killing bear cubs and wolf pups, although that’s how a lot of click bait portrays the issue.

It’s really about whether predator control should occur in national wildlife refuges. Its about states’ rights versus federal authority. Personally, I believe the prohibited hunting methods are nothing more than thinly veiled predator control, which should not be allowed on land managed in the national interest.

If you’re concerned about predator control on wildlife refuges in Alaska, then you should oppose these bills.  The House resolution has already passed, so any efforts should be focused on the Senate version, S.J. 18.

Edit: The Senate passed H.J.R 69 by a 52-47 vote. The President is expected to sign it into law.

In the Salt Marsh

Along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, from Newfoundland to Florida, you can find a special habitat—the Spartina salt marsh. A transition zone between the land and the sea, this is a challenging place to live for many organisms. I found myself with some spare time while visiting family in South Carolina, so of course I couldn’t resist exploring a nearby salt marsh, one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth. This habitat produces more biomass per meter than almost any other biome. Only tropical rainforests are more productive.

brown grass in salt marsh meadow

A typical salt marsh scene in winter: golden-colored cordgrass.

I reached the marsh near low tide, which exposed soggy ditches and mud flats. The mud was soupy in places, sucking at my boots.

Looking down on boots in soupy, dark brown mud.

Oysters clung together in the lowest reaches of the tidal flats and ditches. The tips of their shells may be fragile, but they are also extremely sharp, as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. I don’t know whether the shell’s sharpness is an accident of evolution or an adaptation to protect them from predators like drums, rays, and clumsy humans like me. I do know that I’ll never forget the first time I tried to walk over a few oysters while only wearing flip flops. Trust me, it’s not a pleasant experience.

oyster shell with sunlight passing through translucent upper portion of shell.

The edges of many oyster shells are thin and fragile, but also very sharp.

Walking was easier where vegetation was firmly established. On the U.S. Atlantic coast, most salt marshes are dominated by Spartina grasses. There are several species of Spartina, but the most abundant is salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Cordgrass thrives in this habitat, despite the harsh conditions—flooded twice-daily by tides, exposed to high salinity, and mired in anoxic (oxygen-free or oxygen-limited) mud.

golden brown grass, trees seen on horizon

Salt marsh cordgrass is the most abundant and ecologically important plant in East Coast salt marshes.

Most flowering plants have a fairly low tolerance for salt, but the cordgrass is watered by the ocean twice a day. Cordgrass meets the salty challenge by sequestering salt in its shoots and excreting the salt through glands in its leaves. The grass deals with the challenge of low oxygen levels in the deep mud by exchanging gases from roots in the upper few centimeters of mud to those underneath. Few plants have these dual abilities, which is the reason cord grass so thoroughly dominates salt marshes. Once you learn to identify salt marsh cordgrass, you can easily and accurately judge the average level of high tide, since cordgrass is usually limited to areas that receive substantial flooding with each high tide.

brown grass of salt marsh, taller rushes on left of photo, trees on horizon

The transition between the low marsh to the high marsh is marked by plants other than salt marsh cordgrass. The high marsh lies above the typical high tide line. Plants like black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus), salt meadow hay (Spartina patens), salt grass (Distichlis sp.), and saltwort (Salicornia sp.) begin to compete with cord grass where tidal flooding is less frequent. Needlerush is the taller plant on the left of the photo.

pinkish, segmented stem of saltwort

Saltwort is a noticeable member of the mid to high marsh community.

Unlike salt marsh cord grass, saltwort tolerates high salt levels through its ability to retain water in its stems, but it cannot withstand the same level of submersion that cordgrass can. Saltwort always captures my attention though, not only because it is a pretty plant, but because it is tasty. Late December is not a choice time for nibbling on saltwort stems. Few were even standing, but the sight of them reminded me of their pleasing salty bite. (I’ve also pickled saltwort using a recipe I found in a Euell Gibbons book. It tasted surprisingly good.)

Before leaving the marsh, I took some time to watch birds out on the lower fringes of the exposed mud. A casual scan through binoculars revealed over a hundred semipalmated plovers. On the edge of the marsh, these birds work to survive the winter before returning north to their breeding grounds from Newfoundland and Labrador west to Alaska.They were also finding a few more invertebrates than I was.

shorebird pulling a worm out of mud with its bill

Worms are yummy for plovers.

My urge to get a little closer to the exposed mudflats brought me to the edge of the cord grass where the mud was very soft. While plovers were pulling invertebrates out of the mud, I was having some difficultly extracting my boots from the mud. Salt marshes are challenging places to live and, if you’re human, difficult places to travel.

looking down on very muddy pants and footware

Salt marsh trekking is dirty business.

Earth Time Lapse

Nothing is completely static on geologic timescales, but some features—like volcanoes, barrier islands, glaciers, and human development—change faster than others. To see these changes, I’ve been playing around with Google’s Earth Engine. By combining over 30 years of Landsat imagery it offers a remarkable look at how Earth’s surface has changed recently. I found reason for concern, but was reminded just how beautiful the planet is.


Volcanoes are the most dynamic landforms on Earth. While the above GIF’s imagery starts a few years after Mount Saint Helen’s 1980 eruption, it captures the volcano’s awakening from 2004-2008 when a large lava dome grew in the crater. Very cool.

Surtseyan eruptions are island forming eruptions that happen in shallow water. In 2011 and 2012, you can see new islands suddenly appear on the sea’s surface in the Zubair Group, volcanic islands in the Red Sea. Few people have seen new islands form, but there they are. Super cool.

Barrier Islands

Barrier islands move, often rapidly. Toms Cove Hook is protected as part of Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Unlike most barrier islands on the Atlantic coast of the U.S., Assateague is almost free of permanent structures and roads. Toms Cove Hook has no development at all. Here is an increasingly rare opportunity to watch a barrier island dance. Beautiful.

Fire Island is a national seashore off of Long Island in New York. Before the 2012 breach, watch the sand slowly creep across the island. Barrier islands move shoreward when sea levels rise. They are not permanent features. When allowed to move naturally I find these islands exceptionally beautiful, but they are no place for permanent roads or structures. It’s human folly to build on these islands. They simply change too quickly.


Carbon Glacier carves the north slope of Mount Rainer. Worldwide, glaciers have undergone significant declines over the last 30 years and Carbon Glacier is no exception, but that doesn’t mean glaciers still don’t flow downhill. Even receding glaciers continue to erode the land as Carbon Glacier demonstrates. It carries sediments downhill in a conveyor belt-like manner while its terminus shrinks. I find a glacier’s flow mesmerizing.

Human Development

This is, sadly, probably the easiest example of rapid change to find on Earth today. Cranberry Township, Butler County, PA is a typically example of the development much of the U.S. has experienced in my lifetime. I grew up about 20 miles north of here and witnessed its semi-rural farmland transform into a maze of tract homes and strip malls.

That rainforest destruction I heard about as a kid really hasn’t abated either. GIF showing destruction of Amazon rainforest

Who knew it would be so easy to watch decades of change? Tools like the Earth Engine are amazing and they allow me to see the world like never before. As I browsed I was awed by power and beauty of natural changes and saddened by the rate humans are altering the planet. Hopefully, we can use information like this to inspire everyone to protect what we have left.

Sometimes Individuals Lose While Species Win

pine cones on the ground

Many seeds in these cones wait to be released.

Fire is a boon to some species and a detriment to others. When fire sweeps across the landscape there are winners and losers.The cones of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) demonstrate adaptations that allow the species to survive potentially catastrophic changes.

Serotiny is an adaptation of some plants to release seeds in response to an environmental trigger. Serotiny is expressed in lodgepole pine through its cones. In fire prone habitats, lodgepole pine cones are glued shut by resin. Heat from fires melts the resin allowing the cone scales to separate and release seeds. Since it’s not safe to watch a wildfire burn through lodgepole pines, I placed a tightly sealed serotinous cone from a lodgepole pine in a toaster oven to watch how it responded to temperature changes.

The cone scales began to expand noticeably when the temperature reached about 50˚C (122˚F).  According to the U.S. Forest Service, more precise lab experiments have found the resinous bonds between the cone scales begin to break between 45˚C and 60˚C, so serotinous cones lying at or near the soil surface can also open with these ground temperatures. If this cone was kissed by fire its scales would have expanded and allowed the seed to be slowly released. (I let the temperature in the oven rise to over 200˚C (400˚F) just because I felt like watching the scales fully expand.) Serotinous cones collect on the ground or on tree branches for many years. The seeds under the scales lie in a state of dormancy, waiting for the opportunity to sprout.

Not all stands of lodgepole pines have serotinous cones. Serotinous cones are not common in eastern Oregon, rare in coastal populations, absent in some fire prone habitats like the Sierra Nevada, and “many stands in the Rockies have less than 50 percent serotinous-cone trees.” Wherever it grows through, lodgepole pine thrives in full sun. Its seeds sprout best in or on bare mineral soil and disturbed duff free of competing vegetation—the exact conditions many fires create.

small pine trees under taller, dead-standing trees

After huge wildfires burned large swaths of Yellowstone National Park in 1988, lodgepole pine sprouted back in earnest. This NPS photo was taken ten years after the ’88 fires. The lodgepole trees are much larger now.

Serotiny in lodgepole pine makes large quantities of seeds available to germinate following a fire. In many cases, especially regarding lodgepole pines, fire may be an enemy to the individual, but not to the species.