My Pebble Mine Draft EIS Comments

As I’ve written before (here, here, and here) and commented on (here and here), Pebble Mine represents an unacceptable threat to Bristol Bay, home to the last great salmon run left on Earth. Through June 29, you can submit comments on the Army Corps of Engineers draft Pebble Mine environmental impact statement. I encourage everyone who cares about wildlife and wild places to comment. Tell the Army Corps of Engineers that this mine is unacceptable.

I also realize that not everyone has the time to read the draft EIS, which is huge, containing about 1,400 pages. So, I’ve copied my comments on the draft EIS verbatim below. You can also download a rich text file of the comments. I hope they inform your comments about Pebble Mine, the development of which would be a grievous mistake.

red salmon swimming in shallow water

Draft Pebble Mine Environmental Impact Statement Comments

I firmly oppose the development of Pebble Mine. The draft EIS (DEIS) fails to adequately address the mine’s short-term and long-term impacts. Additionally, its development would create several permanent hazards to the watershed, and the mine merely represents the first of many potential large-scale developments that will continually degrade salmon habitat in Bristol Bay. After reviewing the DEIS, I urge the Army Corps of Engineers to reject the permit application for Pebble Mine and select the no action alternative.

Permanent Mine Hazards

The mine and its infrastructure create several permanent environmental hazards. Two of these hazards, the open pit lake and tailings storage areas, are particularly concerning, because the DEIS does not provide adequate or convincing information on how these hazards can be contained indefinitely. For example, page 8 of the executive summary states,

“Pyritic tailings and PAG waste rock would be placed into the open pit for long-term storage below the pit lake water level. Once the material has been transferred to the open pit, the pit lake (i.e., the water that would accumulate in the open pit as a lake at closure) would continue to fill, and would be allowed to rise to the pre-determined control elevation threshold (about 890 feet). Once the level of the open pit lake rises to the control elevation, water would be pumped from the open pit, treated as required to meet State water quality standards, and discharged to the environment.”

This final stage of the open pit requires indefinite water treatment and discharge of water from the open pit. This is neither acceptable nor feasible in perpetuity since treatment facilities must be funded and maintained forever. Even if Pebble Limited Partnership is required to establish a bond to fund treatment, government solvency cannot be guaranteed over time spans necessary to treat wastewater from the open pit. Additionally, if costs to treat wastewater exceed the money available in the bond, then the burden to prevent contamination to the watershed will fall to taxpayers.

Page 8 of the executive summary also states,

“The bulk TSF would be closed by grading its surface so that all drainage would be directed off the TSF, and then the tailings surface would be covered with soil and/or rock and possibly a geomembrane or other synthetic material. This would prevent water from ponding on the TSF surface, and is known as a dry closure. Once this surface runoff from the bulk TSF is demonstrated to meet water quality criteria, it would be directly discharged to the environment.”

Since geomembranes have only been in use for 30 to 40 years, we lack adequate information on how they perform over the time span (essentially forever) necessary to keep the bulk tailings storage facility dry and prevent groundwater from leaching in or out. Simply covering it with soil, rock, and a synthetic membrane only delays groundwater contamination. It will not prevent it. The impacts of a degraded geomembrane leading to groundwater contamination are reasonably foreseeable but are currently unevaluated in the DEIS. The EIS needs to evaluate the impacts and timeline of a degraded geomembrane, not just presume that it will protect groundwater forever. It won’t.

Importantly, it is also completely unethical for a private corporation to create permanent hazards of this type. The mine has the potential to become another superfund site. If the Corps is to evaluate whether this project is in the public’s best interest, then it cannot ethically allow the creation of these hazards.

Scope of DEIS

The DEIS repeatedly presents information on best-case scenarios or merely states that something is “expected to happen” in an ideal way. For example, page 39 of the executive summary states,

“Water extraction activities would be required to meet the requirements of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for temporary water use authorizations, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) for fish habitat permits (if issued). The rate and volume of water withdrawals would be monitored at each source to ensure permit requirements are met (as per permit stipulations). Therefore, the magnitude of the impacts to surface water resources is generally expected to result in changes in water quantity likely within the limits of historic and seasonal variation. The duration of the impacts is likely to be the life of the road, and the geographic extent of the impacts is likely to be relatively close to the road.”

Page 41 of the executive summary states,

“Overall, downstream impacts from pit lake level management during post-closure would not be expected.”

For another example, page 43 of the executive summary states,

“Under Action Alternative 1, impacts to water quality would generally be limited to the mine site area, within the zone of contact water capture and treatment, with potential minor exceptions of temperature and turbidity effects. Potential effects of contact and runoff water during construction of downstream water and sediment quality would be minimized through treatment prior to discharge, and would be expected to be minor.”

Statements such as these presuppose nothing will go wrong, ever, not with water treatment, not with the tailings storage areas, not with the fuel or the natural gas pipeline, not with the water extraction sites along the road. It downplays potentially significant risks. The DEIS does not adequately evaluate cumulative, foreseeable, long-term impacts.

Problems maintaining water quality can be expected over the life of the mine and are likely to increase after the mine is decommissioned. The mine will result in a net loss of spawning and rearing areas for salmon, and the habitat cannot be reclaimed. Throughout the DIES, the text downplays the ultimate impacts of the project. To gloss over impacts to the watershed in this manner represents a lack of due diligence on the part of Army Corps of Engineers and Pebble Limited Partnership.

Potential for Catastrophic Mine Impacts

While a credible worst-case spill from the mine, such as a tailings dam failure, is not likely in 20 years, if it were to occur the environmental effects would be devastating. The DEIS, again, neglects to include the possibility of unlikely–but foreseeable–catastrophic events. The agency’s review does not analyze a full breach of the tailings dams. It instead looks at a much smaller partial breach suggesting, “Action Alternative 1 and variants would not be expected to result in a longterm change in the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay or Cook Inlet.” (DEIS Executive Summary, page 54)

The potential for a tailings dam failure might have been calculated to be small (DEIS K4.15-16) over the near term, for example, but the risk cannot be eliminated and it will increase over time without additional mitigation measures. What is the likelihood of dam failure (large or small) over the next several hundred years? How would a catastrophic tailings dam failure impact the watershed, salmon, other wildlife, and the people who rely on Bristol Bay? This must be evaluated in the EIS. It is a reasonably foreseeable impact for this type of development since tailings dams fail frequently in the United States.

Impacts to Fish and Wildlife

The DEIS does not adequately evaluate the direct or otherwise foreseeable impacts on waters accessible to anadromous fish. As an example,

“The magnitude and extent of impacts, when compared to the total mileage of currently documented anadromous waters in the three tributaries associated with the mine site (i.e., the NFK, SFK, and the UTC), the loss of Tributary 1.19 habitat would represent 4 percent and 3 percent of spawning and rearing habitat for coho salmon, respectively; and 3 percent of Chinook salmon rearing habitat in these tributaries. In the context of the entire Bristol Bay drainage, with its 9,816 miles of currently documented anadromous waters, the loss of Tributary 1.19 represents an 0.08 percent reduction of documented anadromous stream habitat.” (Executive Summary, pg. 49)

Fish populations fluctuate significantly over many years and Pacific salmon utilize different habitats during different life stages. Some places in a creek are good for spawning but not rearing, for example. These habitats do not necessarily occur along a stream’s entire distance, nor do streams support salmon at the same rates consistently. Productivity within a watershed can fluctuate greatly over annual and decadal scales. As recent research1 on the Nushagak watershed demonstrated, entire landscapes stabilize biological production. Patterns of high and low production shift among locations throughout time. Simply acknowledging a stream supports anadromous fish does not adequately acknowledge the complexity of salmon habitat. Subsequent chapters in the DEIS do not present information on the type and relative importance of the habitat that will be lost. Therefore, the DEIS’ conclusions may not reflect the true importance of the stream miles impacted by the mine.

The quoted text is also written in a manner that minimizes the mine’s impact on fish (“In the context of the entire Bristol Bay drainage…the loss of Tributary 1.19 represents an 0.08 percent reduction of documented anadromous stream habitat.”). A more ecologically accurate measure would be to calculate this statistic as a percentage of the North Fork Koktuli River watershed. As I note above, not all anadromous streams are created equal. The North Fork Koktuli River watershed likely supports unique stocks of anadromous fish. Sacrificing .08% of Bristol Bay is not inconsequential and should not be written in a manner that suggests as much.

Regarding the transportation corridor, each of the DEIS alternatives are flawed due to the lack of information on the infrastructure impacts on fish and wildlife. For example, the DEIS does not address whether shipping across Lake Iliamna will impact harbor seals. The seals who live in Lake Iliamna are a unique population2. They live their entire lives in freshwater and have never experienced consistent shipping traffic on the scale proposed. The DEIS, therefore, needs to evaluate the impacts of shipping on wildlife in Lake Iliamna.

Water Extraction

At the mine and along the proposed transportation corridor, dozens of “water extraction sites” are proposed, pumping hundreds of millions of gallons of combined from surface features such as ponds, lakes, and streams (DEIS 2-58, 2-59, 2-96, 2-111). The pumping will continue year-round for the lifespan of the mine, and potentially longer as long as the infrastructure exists. However, I was unable to locate information in the DEIS on the impact of water extraction. Text on water extraction cites Appendix K2, which only includes a table about the estimated extraction rate per year.

There is no analysis of the impact of removing 500-1000 gallons per minute from dozens of surface water features. Are the streams identified for water extraction included in Alaska’s anadromous fish catalog? How will each stream react to that level of water removal? Flow rates in Bristol Bay streams vary greatly across seasons. Can the proposed extraction rates be maintained during years of drought or during winter when flow rates are low with no significant impact on aquatic habitat?

Each water feature is hydrologically unique and should be evaluated separately. A lack of evaluation on water extraction on fisheries and wildlife is a major flaw in the DEIS.

Long-term infrastructure use by communities

The DEIS states in several places that mine infrastructure will improve the quality of life for some communities.

“As described in Section 4.12, Transportation and Navigation, Alternative 1 would result in the construction of roads and ports. Although the road and port would have limited access, PLP has stated that they would work with all local communities to identify the best solutions for controlled-access use of the road and ferry for community transportation. Communities adjacent to the natural gas pipeline (Kokhanok, Newhalen, and Iliamna) would have the opportunity to connect to the pipeline. During operations, PLP would work with local communities to identify safe, practicable ways for residents to use the access roads, such as scheduled, escorted convoys for private vehicle transport.” (4.4)

“Communities adjacent to the natural gas pipeline (Kokhanok, Newhalen, and Iliamna) would have the opportunity to connect to the pipeline. Natural gas would likely be less expensive than diesel heating oil, which could lower the cost of living once equipment (e.g., furnace, water heater) is converted to natural gas” (4.4-5)

However, the DEIS repeatedly states that infrastructure will be abandoned or removed after 20 years.

“If no longer required at closure, the pipeline would be cleaned and either abandoned in place or removed, subject to state and federal regulatory review and approval at the decommissioning stage of the project. Surface utilities associated with the pipeline would be removed and reclaimed.” (Executive Summary, pg. 13)

Due to the high cost of living in the area, communities along the infrastructure corridor are likely to use the access road and the natural gas pipeline as soon as they are permitted to do so. These same communities wouldn’t want to give it up that access after 20 years. Therefore, the likely impacts of a natural gas pipeline and roads are not limited to 20 years. Impacts extend indefinitely. The DEIS should be revised so that it evaluates the impacts of a potentially permanent pipeline and road corridor.

Potential for Larger Mine

The DEIS is a rough evaluation of a mine with a 20-year lifespan, but that is one of the least likely development scenarios. If Pebble Mine is permitted to be developed, then it will open the door for an expanded and much larger mine that will operate for nearly 80 years as well as several other large-scale mineral prospects. The DEIS acknowledges this on page 4.1-8 when it states the Pebble Project Expansion is “reasonably foreseeable” and “would develop an additional 58% of mineral deposits”. The impacts of a much larger Pebble mine and a mining district in the headwaters of Bristol Bay are potentially exponentially greater compared to the mine proposed in the DEIS. This will cause irreparable harm to Bristol Bay’s fishery.

The potential for an expanded mine also increases the likelihood that the Pebble’s supporting infrastructure will remain in place indefinitely. The infrastructure is unlikely to be reclaimed as outlined in the DEIS. It will be used to service not only the larger Pebble Mine but others as well. This will lead to a cumulative degradation of salmon habitat, greater impacts to other species of wildlife, and greater risk for Bristol Bay’s fishing industry and culture. Although it’s not possible for the DEIS to evaluate the impacts of all foreseeable project expansions and other mines, the likelihood of this should at least be acknowledged more prominently, ideally in the executive summary. As currently written it is buried in Chapter 4 and easy to overlook.

In support of the No Action Alternative

Large scale development, especially open-pit mining, is incompatible with salmon habitat. We know this because large scale development has significantly degraded salmon runs and salmon habitat across much of the North Pacific and North Atlantic. Bristol Bay harbors the last great salmon run on Earth. If Pebble Mine is developed, then we will have acknowledged we have learned nothing from the collapse of salmon runs in New England, California, Oregon, or Washington.

The DEIS is largely based on Pebble Limited Partnership’s data. With so many flaws in the DEIS, it’s clear that the applicant’s plan is inadequate and has not met the burden of information necessary to justify their plans.

The cheapest, most feasible, and most environmentally ethical decision is to conclude this mine poses unacceptable risks to Bristol Bay—specifically the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds—reject the mine alternatives, and choose the no action alternative for the final EIS. This is well within the Corps’ legal authority: “No Action Alternative could be selected if USACE determines during its Public Interest Review (33 CFR Part 320.4[A]) that it is in the best interest of the public, based on an evaluation of the probable impacts of the proposed activity and its intended use on the public interest.” (Ch. 2-8)

Although modern society uses rare earth minerals like gold and copper in many ways, civilization will not collapse if Pebble Mine is not developed. We won’t even be inconvenienced. If developed though, Pebble Mine represents the beginning of the end of Bristol Bay’s salmon. Mining impacts won’t cease after 20 years, and the hazards cannot be mitigated in perpetuity. The infrastructure is a beachhead for a larger scale Pebble Mine as well as many others in the region. The cumulative impacts of each mine will result in the net loss of larger and larger percentages of available anadromous fish habitat. On no metric does the value ore at Pebble exceed the value a healthy Bristol Bay watershed, its tens of millions of spawning salmon, and the economy and culture based on it.

There is no doubt the no action alternative is in the best interest to the public. We have so little to lose by leaving the ore at Pebble Mine in the ground and so much to gain by protecting it for current and future generations. The decision is clear.

The only acceptable alternative proposed in the DEIS is the no-action alternative. Do not permit this mine to be developed. If you do, it will become one of the greatest environmental tragedies of the 21st century, representative of our failure to do what is right by the land, the fish, and the people of Bristol Bay. It will become a monument to human greed and hubris.

Sincerely,
Michael Fitz
Concrete, WA
May 24, 2019

  1. Brennan, S. R., et al. Shifting habitat mosaics and fish production across river basins. Science. Vol. 364. Issue 6442. 24 May 2019
  2. Brennan, S. R., et al. Isotopes in teeth and a cryptic population of coastal freshwater seals. Conservation Biology. Accepted Author Manuscript. 2019. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13303

 

 

 

Fishers Return to North Cascades

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

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

fisher running to escape a box, people standing behind it

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

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

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

forest and stream

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

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

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

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

view through screened hole of fisher in a box

A fisher peeks through a window toward the outside world.

people carrying wooden crates on forested path

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

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

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

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

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

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

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

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

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

Happy Birthday Bear

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

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

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

Three small cubs held in a person's hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

fat brown bear exiting water

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

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

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

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

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

So, happy birthday brown bear.

Francis Beilder Forest

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

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

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

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

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

silhouette of large bald cypress tree

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

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

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

crown of large bald cypress with broken branch

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

top of trunk of hollow bald cypress tree

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Live Bearcam Broadcasts in 2018

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

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

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

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

 

Stuff I wrote in 2018

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

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

Fat Bear Week 2018 Endorsement

Last October I wrote, “There are small and fat bears, old and fat bears, young and fat bears, and just plain fat bears. But none, NONE I say, are as fat as 747.” A year later, 747 continues to demonstrate his survival skills and success at Brooks River. He’s big enough and fat enough to once again earn my official endorsement for Fat Bear Week 2018. 747 is titanic, a giant among bears.

GIF of large, dark brown bear walking down a steep hill

Bear 747 is an adult male in the prime of his life. First identified as a subadult bear in 2004, he’s matured into the largest bear I’ve ever seen.

 

But don’t just take my word for it. Bear 747 is endorsed by several of his competitors at Brooks River.

bear lying on ground

“Look, we’re all fat right now, but no one is as fat as 747. Seriously, his belly nearly drags on the ground. Even I never achieved that level of pudge. “ Bear 410

profile of bear walking along edge of river

“I keep my distance from him because I’m concerned he’ll roll on top of me.” Bear 68

402_07062016

“I’m still in awe of his size. Can he even dig a den big enough to fit within?” Bear 402.

bear with blond ears and blond coat standing in water

“Even though I’m in the Fat Bear Week bracket, I still might vote for 747. It’s the logical vote. He probably weighs at least three times as much as me.” Bear 719

profile of brown bear standing on edge of waterfall

“747 is a role model of fat bear success. I hope to be as fat as him one day.” Bear 503

bear sitting in water below waterfall

“I’m too hungry to comment.” Bear 480 Otis.

Many people who have observed 747 closely also agree with the endorsement.

bear lying in water facing photographer

“He’s all business—fishing and eating. Nobody gets fat like 747.” Jeanne R., former Katmai National Park ranger.

Too much fat is unhealthy for humans, but fat is essential to the survival of brown bears. It is a savings account against famine. Without ample fat, bears do not survive hibernation. In spring, often a season of starvation for bears, females with cubs will metabolize fat into milk to nurse their growing cubs, and adult males will use their fat to fuel their pursuit of mates.

747 won’t be rearing any cubs next spring as male brown bears play no role in raising offspring. During a season when almost no high calorie foods are available to bears, 747 will use his fat to roam the landscape for mates instead.

Other bears might be more charismatic or tug on your heartstrings, but 747 truly is a giant among Brooks River bears. He deserves your vote for Fat Bear Week 2018.

Katmai Fat Bear Week Bracket 2018 Fitz choices.png

My 2018 Fat Bear Week bracket predictions.

You are encouraged to vote for Brooks River’s fattest bear on Katmai National Park and Preserve’s Facebook page. Starting on Oct. 3, park rangers will post head-to-head matchups between well-known bearcam bears. The bear whose photo receives the most likes will advance to the next round, until one bear is crowned fattest bear on Fat Bear Tuesday, October 9th. Don’t forget to watch Katmai’s fattest bears on bearcam.

 

 

 

A Mountain Lion Prowls the Neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bear, wolves, and a moose carcass

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

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

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

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

low resolution photo of a bear running at a wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to Bearcam 2018

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

many bears standing and fishing near a waterfall

Brooks Falls on a busy evening

 

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

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

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