A January Bear

It was late January, but I enjoyed nearly perfect hiking weather in Big Bend National Park. The sky was clear, the wind was calm, and the temperatures hovered in the hiking Goldilocks range (for me, that’s the low 60˚s F). I had spotted a few piles of bear scat earlier that day, but all were dry and desiccated. Then in the late afternoon, I found one particularly fresh pile of crap.

This scat was soft and pliable and hadn’t been exposed to the dry desert air for very long. (I poked it with a stick to gain a very scientific measure of its age.) Was there a bear nearby? I hoped to find out.

The previous day, I stopped in the Chisos Basin Visitor Center to purchase a book to help me search for the park’s endemic oaks. A map on the visitor center wall was marked with sticky notes identifying when and where people had spotted black bears. At least a dozen had been seen over the past two weeks. I made a mental note to watch carefully for bear sign. Maybe, just maybe, I would be lucky enough to see one for myself.

Mountain rising above pine and juniper forest

The pinyon-oak-juniper habitat near Emory Peak (center) is preferred habitat for Big Bend’s black bears.

Although I spent considerable time searching for the endemic oaks (and found at least a couple, plus some species rarely found in the U.S.), bears were never far from my mind. Backcountry campsites all had bear-resistant food storage boxes, and signs clearly informed people that bears will take your unattended pack.

metal sign. Text says, "Bear Country Do Not Leave Back Packs Unattended"

Occasionally, I’d find old piles of bear scat or a marking tree.

scratch marks on bark of tree

Black bears used this Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica) near Boot Spring as a marking tree.

No long after I photographed the marking tree, I stumbled on the aforementioned scat. Its freshness caught my attention, but it wasn’t steaming so I couldn’t be sure if a bear was close or not. I only knew it was there earlier in the day. As I proceeded up the trail, motivated to pick up my pace and return to the campground before dark, two hikers traveling in the opposite direction told me they had just seen a bear not far from the trail. This was their first wild black bear sighting, and they spoke excitedly about their experience. I thanked them for the info and continued on, now even more alert.

The hikers said the bear was near a switchback in the trail, not far from a backcountry campsite. I slowed my pace as I approached that location, not wanting to startle the animal. A moment later, through some thick vegetation, I heard cracking branches and there it was—a black bear.

black bear ears seen through thick vegetation

My soon-to-be award winning wildlife photo of a black bear in Big Bend National Park. Move over Tom Mangelsen.

What would a bear be doing out in January? Since bears are omnivorous and eat a wide variety of food, their scat reveals a world of information about where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to. The fresh bear scat I found 10 minutes before, like the older scat on the trails, was filled with fragments of pinyon nuts and shells. Pine nuts are exceptionally nutritious, containing almost 700 calories per 100 grams. The pinyons pines in the Chisos Mountains seemed to have produced a sizable cone crop in 2016, one which helped sustain the bears into mid winter.

pile of black bear scat in grass

Pinyon pine nut shells and fragments fill this fresh pile of bear scat. I found this scat just moments before seeing an active bear.

The density of the shrubs made it difficult for me to se exactly what the actual bear was doing, but it appeared to have its nose to the ground and it wasn’t moving far. Perhaps it was still feeding on pine nuts.

pine cones on the ground

These Mexican pinyon pine (Pinus cembroides) cones still hold their fatty nuts.

Black bears in the Chisos Mountains rely heavily on habitats with pinyon, oak, juniper, and grassy talus slopes, although male bears will make more frequent use of low elevation areas. Even so, this was January 26. Shouldn’t the bear be inside a den?

Black bears in more northernly locations hibernate well before January. However, bears in Big Bend don’t typically enter their dens until late January or February, and when they do many don’t seem to fully enter hibernation. Male bears, especially, are more likely to remain active. Pregnant females in Big Bend, like other bear populations in North America, have the longest average denning period, beginning in mid to late December and ending in late April.

This winter activity isn’t unique to Big Bend’s bears. Black bears in Florida have similar winter dormancy patterns. Mild weather and the prospect of food, especially, can keep bears active for longer time spans. After all, bears are avoiding winter famine more than winter weather when they hibernate. The bear I saw probably wasn’t doing anything abnormal for a Big Bend black bear. It was just another bear doing bear things like eating and shitting in the woods.

National Parks Aren’t Pure

National parks are often billed as places of change and integrity (even by me), where nature can take its course. Yet, they face unprecedented challenges and are managed so that nature doesn’t take its course in many cases. Some parks cull wildlife through controlled hunts or periodic roundups (Wind Cave, Badlands). Biologists occasionally control one species to benefit an endangered animal (Cape Cod). Now, the National Park Service has developed a draft plan to prevent the extirpation of wolves from Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Plans such as this, which suggest increasing levels of intervention in ecosystem management, are the future of conservation in national parks. This is a future, and a current reality, where humans have so fundamentally altered the planet that nature doesn’t exist outside our influence. Parks aren’t pure anymore.

In the early 20th century, national parks and monuments were managed primarily for aesthetics, spectacle, and recreation. Park superintendents and rangers had preconceived notions of what parklands should look like and the experiences they should provide visitors. Caves were manipulated and became showcases to march people through sensitive areas. Predators like wolves and mountain lions were vilified and persecuted. Bears were a sideshow. Feeding them at dumps and roadsides was often encouraged. Insecticides were sprayed to control native insect outbreaks. The long-standing philosophy was: parks ought to be pretty and tidy.

As respect for wilderness and ecological integrity grew, people began to reconsider how national parks were managed. In 1963, an advisory board for the Department of Interior issued Wildlife Management in the National Parks, or the Leopold Report after the board’s chair, A. Starker Leopold. Admittedly “conceptual,” the Leopold Report fundamentally altered natural resource management in parks.

The Leopold Report catalyzed a time of real soul searching for park managers. The report asked, “How far should the National Park Service go in utilizing the tools of management to maintain wildlife populations?” It acknowledged that few parks are large enough to be self-regulating ecosystems. It went further by stating the biological communities in parks are artifacts and that management is often essential to maintain some biotic communities. The report famously recommended the National Park Service manage parklands as “vignettes of primitive America,” a philosophical shift that on the surface represents a more pure vision of what national parks should and could be—places that resemble the prevailing conditions experienced by the first Europeans.

While noble, this ideal is wrought with fallacy. The Leopold Report admitted primitive America could never be recreated fully. Just to list a few examples: passenger pigeons are extinct, American chestnuts are functionally extinct, wild bison almost became extinct, and wolves were extirpated across most of their range in the United States. It also made no accommodation for Native American use and manipulation of the land. Essentially, any recreation of “primitive America” is artificial, but something to strive for.

What should we do when the line blurs between maintaining a primitive landscape and acknowledging there is no longer any such thing? Isle Royale National Park is one of the most recent parks to grapple with this issue. Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior, sitting about twenty miles east of Grand Portage, Minnesota, and most of it is designated federal wilderness. The upper Great Lakes region was one of the few places in the Lower 48 states where wolves maintained a foothold throughout the 20th century, but Isle Royale was wolf-free in the early 1900s. Wolves only returned to the island in the late 1940s after crossing the ice on Lake Superior.

Only two wolves were observed on the island in 2016 (the historical average, according to the draft wolf introduction plan, is 20-30). The population plummeted because disease (canine parvovirus) and a lack of connectivity with the mainland reduced genetic diversity. The animals are now extremely inbred and remain in a genetic bottleneck they probably won’t escape. Even though Isle Royale has numerous moose (the wolves’ primary prey), the wolves will likely disappear from the island without human intervention. Is it wrong to let the wolves disappear?

Yellowstone National Park’s effort to reintroduce wolves is the most famous wolf reintroduction program in history. It is also a remarkable success, from the standpoint of the wolf. The reintroduction of wolves arguably shifted the ecosystem into top-down mode where large predators like wolves exert strong influence on the behavior and abundance prey species. Yellowstone’s effort corrected a wrong—people extirpated the park’s wolves through hunting, trapping, and poisoning. Now, a strong case can be made that humans are driving Isle Royale’s wolves to extirpation, just in a less obvious way.

At first, disease and a lack of connectivity with the mainland seem like natural influences, after all Isle Royale is an isle and many diseases infect wolves. Canine parvovirus is not native to the island, however. This disease caused the wolf population to decline drastically in 1981, from 50 to 14, and the population has never fully recovered. Wolves immigrate and emigrate from the island over ice bridges on Lake Superior. A warming climate trend has drastically reduced the frequency of the ice bridges, so much so that only one formed in the first decade of the 20th century. As the climate continues to warm, ice bridges will form less and less. For those reasons, you could easily make a case that humans precipitated the decline of wolves and therefore we should intervene.

The island would become a different place without wolves. Vegetation changes would become more pronounced and happen at a faster rate. Moose browsing threatens the persistence of big-tooth aspen, red oak, and balsam poplar on the island, but vegetation changes are not tied to moose alone. Computer models indicate many dominant tree species (balsam fir, white spruce, black spruce) may disappear from the island due to a warming climate. Paper birch and quaking aspen are expected to undergo serious declines. Park managers expect that in the presence of wolves, moose herbivory would be less likely to exacerbate climate change’s influences on vegetation. Looking at the issue from the perspective of ecosystem health and biological integrity, the presence of wolves is probably necessary to prevent habitat degradation, or at least slow it. Therefore, should we intervene? The NPS thinks so, and I don’t necessarily disagree.

There is no ecological difference between humans supplementing wolves on the island and wolves immigrating naturally across an ice bridge. The only difference is mental, cultural. We’d know we did it. We’d know we manipulated the ecosystem. We know we messed with primitive America. For some people, that trammels the island’s wilderness and severely impacts its natural quality.

We need to get over any of that if we want to maintain some biological integrity in the future.

In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben argues that by burning fossil fuels, we’ve fundamentally altered Earth’s atmosphere causing global warming, and nature, as it is classically known (the physical world outside of humanity and human creations), no longer exists. Now, not even the deepest ocean trenches are free of our fingerprints. There is no place untouched by humanity. Even if we did not alter climate, humans are so numerous and so thoroughly dominate most terrestrial ecosystems that McKibben’s hypothesis would still stand. We impact the evolution of life on Earth.

Recognizing that much has changed and much has been learned since 1960s, a National Park System Advisory Board revisited the Leopold Report in 2012 and recommended the NPS manage for constant change, instead of striving for a past ideal. Isle Royale’s plan could be supportive of the old and new philosophies. Wolves are valued members of a primitive America, but under current and projected future climate conditions, Isle Royale’s wolves may indefinitely need a helping human hand to remain viable. If we value wolves on the island, then we’re probably committed to supplementing population in perpetuity. Revisiting Leopold recommends the NPS expand their management strategies to encompass a geographic scope beyond park boundaries. If parks, in order to remain ecologically viable, need greater habitat connectivity to other wild lands, then they should forcefully advocate for that. We can no longer pretend national parks are vignettes of primitive America. Wilderness areas can no longer be considered “untrammeled” and “affected primarily by forces of nature” as stated in the 1964 Wilderness Act. We have to choose what parks represent and what they protect.

I’m not opposed to any of the alternatives proposed to introduce wolves to Isle Royale. It’s probably wrong to let wolves disappear from Isle Royale because climate change limits the chances of more wolves immigrating to the island naturally, but there are a lot of threats to biodiversity and we need to choose our battles wisely. We won’t be able to intervene in every Isle Royale-like scenario.

Are we any more intelligent or sophisticated than managers, rangers, and park visitors in the 1910s and 1920s when wolves were more vilified? They could’ve left animals alone to do their own thing. They didn’t, because they didn’t want to. Because, American culture said we should do otherwise. Now, we face a lot of the same questions. What do we value most in parks? How should we protect the things we value within them?

I like to believe, sometime in the future, humans will have voluntarily reduced our footprint enough so that most plants and animals can evolve without our influence. We’re not there yet, certainly not with 7.4 billion of us living in a market economy driven largely by greater and greater levels of consumption. So, yeah, we should help Isle Royale’s wolves, but let’s not pretend national parks are pure wildlands. There is no purity in national park ecosystems anymore. Perhaps there never was.

(The NPS is accepting comments on the Isle Royale National Park Draft Environmental Impact Statement to Address the Presence of Wolves through March 15, 2017.)

wolf standing in snowy forest

Photo courtesy of Isle Royale National Park.

 

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Old growth forests in the eastern U.S were formidable barriers to colonization, places to be subdued and civilized, to fuel industrialization, not preserved. Today, we view old growth forests differently. They give refuge to rare species, support diverse ecological communities, and often provide the conditions necessary for trees to attain their maximum size and age. While visiting Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in the Nantahala National Forest, I thought about why these forests remain so important despite the some negative changes they’ve recently undergone.

Prior to European colonization, forests in the eastern U.S. formed a mosaic of complex habitats, owing to natural disturbance regimes and the influences of American Indian nations. An unbroken old growth canopy stretching for the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River is mythical and never existed. Lightning-caused fires, human-caused fires, tornadoes, ice storms, hurricanes, and insects imparted constant change. Some forests were likely disturbed every few decades at minimum, while others grew undisturbed for hundreds of years.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is one of those places that grew relatively undisturbed. It is a pocket of old growth tucked away in the rugged mountains of western North Carolina. While many impressive trees grow here, the most impressive and largest trees are Liriodendron tulipifera, the tulip tree. Also known as tulip-poplar or yellow-poplar, tulip trees grow fast and tall (the tallest individual tree in the eastern U.S. is currently a tulip tree) and are easy to identify in summer because of their distinctively-shaped leaves.

No live leaves hung from the tulip trees on the overcast, early January day when I visited, but this allowed me to contemplate the trees’ full scale. The tulip trees at Joyce Kilmer are the largest of the species that I’ve ever seen. Many exceed 15 feet in circumference at chest height, approach 150 feet tall, and are several hundred years old.

person standing at base of large tree

I was impressed by complex crowns of the largest trees. Most trees in the eastern U.S. today don’t attain such large, complex crowns. They simply aren’t allowed to grow long enough. Many of the crowns were scarred and broken by centuries of battles with wind, ice, and other forces that try to break the tree down.

crown of large tulip tree

Since tulip poplars are intolerant of shade, the largest tulip trees at Joyce Kilmer likely sprouted and began to dominate the canopy after a major disturbance, like a fire or tornado, swept through the area several hundred years ago. The now towering tulip trees effectively shade the understory, suppressing the germination and growth of their offspring. Instead of young tulip trees, the understory of the forest was filled with more shade tolerant species like sugar maple and American beech. In a couple of hundred years future visitors may see giant sugar maples growing over the decaying remnants of tulip poplars.

Despite the beauty and stateliness of the trees at Joyce Kilmer, this isn’t forest primeval. No such thing exists in the eastern U.S. Evidence of significant, human-caused changes are easy to find here. Until recently, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest contained many large eastern hemlock trees. Now, however, almost every hemlock tree in the grove has been killed by hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native, invasive insect that basically sucks starch out of the hemlock. I found only a handful of live hemlocks in the grove, and none were particularly large.

dead hemlock trees

These hemlocks were killed by hemlock woolly adelgid.

Disturbed, young forests are easy to find. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is different. It represents the forests which used to exist and provides examples of the threats forests face today. The tulip trees at Joyce Kilmer are massive, dwarfing almost everything there, especially me. I walked under the trees in wonder even though this place is very changed. I can’t pretend this is the same forest with the same species composition as it was even a hundred years ago. Among other changes, the hemlocks are dead or dying, American chestnuts are functionally extinct, and passenger pigeons no longer darken the skies. Still, I don’t want to demean this place as less special because it’s not what it once was. On the contrary, it is more special because forests like this are so rare.

person standing at base of large tree