Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Gas Prices Curbing Use?

While I am sensitive to the impact of gas prices on some individuals whose situation prevents them from driving less, the vast majority of people can drive less if they are willing to make some easy compromises.  Even those that swear there is no other options. I hear stories every day like, "I couldn't possibly drive less as I have to take my kids to school". In reality most people don't have to take their kids to school, they choose to. Or, "the bus doesn't serve my neighborhood." It would if you lived in a transit ready development.  It is all about priorities. People have chosen to buy houses from from work and far from school and are now paying the price. The rest of us have been paying their price for some time in higher taxes, poor air quality, environmental degradation and lack of open space.

Good news in my opinion in the local news today, people are driving less. A few statistics from the story:

  • The volume of gas sold in Idaho was down 6% in April compared to a year ago.
  • ValleyRide (the Boise bus system) has increased ridership of its long routes by 40% in the past year (Nampa/Caldwell to Boise). Only a 5% increase within Boise.
  • ACHD has added twelve new commuteride vans in the past year. Ridership is up 20%.

This is all good news for our air quality, our environment, our national security, our trade deficit, etc. People are finally realizing there are alternatives. It is unfortunate that high gas prices is what it takes to cause these positive changes to occur.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Latest Podcasts

I am always looking for new and interesting podcast to listen to as I ride to bus to and from work. I generally focus on science and nature podcasts, although I do mix in other flavors every now and then. Some of my long standing favorites include NPR Science Friday, BirdNote, KBSU: Off the Trail, Stratfor Daily Podcast, and This Week in Science.

I was recently searching for some interesting content in biology or ecology. I've tried a few but haven't found the right content yet.  During my search I came across the Earth and Environmental Systems podcast.  While not exactly what I was looking for this is an excellent program. The creator is a professor at Colorado School of Mines and the content is based upon one of his courses. Each program is about an hour in length and covers a particular theme. The series began with geology, moved into hydrology, then weather and climate, into life, evolution, ecology, and biodiversity.  The program continues but that is as far as I have gotten. It covers a great deal of information.  I highly recommend it.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Wolf Politics Continue

The Idaho Fish and Game commission are up to their same old trick of ignoring the biologists and wildlife managers. Since wolves were removed from the endangered species list a couple of months ago, the Idaho Fish and Game have been working on their hunting season rules.  They just can't wait to let the killing begin. They published a set of rules and took public comment. I submitted my comments that while my personal desire was to delay the hunting season, I thought they had put together a reasonable plan. I encouraged them to be more conservative with the number of allowed deaths. The plan included a total mortality rate of 328 wolves this year.  If that amount was reached, all hunting would be shut down.

In classic fashion, the Idaho Fish and Game commission rejected the recommendation from the staff and increased the total mortality by 100 wolves. They also changed the rules to allow the season to be extended to ensure that as many wolves be killed as possible. They have been arguing for some time that wolves should be managed like any other game animal, but now that they have the chance, they are providing rules which are more anti-game than is used for any other game species they manage.

None of this is a surprise to me. I have believed all along that this issue would just go away if the Fish and Game would put forth a reasonable plan, build trust, and manage to that plan. But those in power in our state just can't let that happen.  They have to demonstrate to their base that they are in power and don't have to be reasonable.  This decision has nothing to do with wildlife management, concern for the people of Idaho, or fulfilling the legal responsibility of their job.  Instead it is a simple F**k You to the federal government for reinstating wolves in Idaho and to the majority of Idahoans which believe that wolves should be here and should be responsibly managed.

I am not a wildlife manager but I will make this prediction, the aggressive hunting rules will cause more trouble than they predict. Large mortality rates will destroy the pack infrastructure of many packs creating many more lone and dispersed wolves.  These wolves will lose the opportunity to gain the culture of the pack which is important for them to stay out of trouble (think of teenagers without guidance). These wolves will get into more trouble than the pack infrastructure we have today as they will be less effective at hunting their big prey.  They will also disperse greater distances leaving ideal (and now dangerous) territory for some place else.  On these journeys they will run in with more people, more domestic animals, and more livestock. As a result, even more of them will be killed. Of course, this is exactly what the commissioners hope will happen.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How I Spent (and will spend) My Summer Vacation

In preparation for my return to school in the fall (see Mid-life Crisis), I have been studying statistics in my free time. My return to school is for what Karyn refers to as my encore career. I start back at Boise State University in the fall for a second degree program in Biology with an Emphasis in Ecology.

I decided to start my studies early for a few reasons. First, I believe that I need to retrain myself for studying.  Being 17 years since I have completed a college course, I suspect my skills are a bit rusty. I also expect that I will need some study discipline work. One of my areas of concern is that in my current employment I have been a generalist with less emphasis on detail for close to 17 years. Many of my expected study areas will require a much higher focus on detail. Second, is that Boise State has accepted many of my previous degree credits as prerequisites for the new work.  Some of that prerequisite knowledge will be required in my future coursework. Since I completed these prerequisites 20 to 24 years ago, I am a bit concerned about my retained knowledge. The two specific areas I have identified where I will need that retained knowledge is in statistics and chemistry. Statistics knowledge will be required in many of my Biology courses. My Chemistry knowledge will be required for Organic Chemistry, which very well may be the hardest course I need to complete.

I chose to start with a focus on statistics.  I purchased the statistics book which is used by Boise State's statistics class so I could most closely align with the prerequisite expectations.

Introduction to the Practice of Statistics w/CD-ROM
by David S. Moore, George P. McCabe

Read more about this book...

To date I have completed a third of the book with exercises. This has enabled me to get into the daily studying routine. My observations so far have been very interesting. First, I am glad that I took this on as I remember less about statistics than I expected. The high level concepts are retained, but the detailed analysis and calculations seem completely foreign.  Second, the content has been easier than I expected.  This is probably due to some residual knowledge that I don't consciously realize that I have. I was surprised at the ease as I remember statistics being one of my hardest classes. I did have a higher level math stats course than what I am refreshing on now.  That could be the difference. I could also find that the remainder of the book gets much more difficult. Lastly, in completing the exercises my fear about details has proven to be true. I continuously make simple errors buried in the details such as simple mathematical errors that have nothing to do with the statistic concepts but definitely impact the results. I clearly need to step up my focus on the details which I have been focusing on for the past few study sessions.  It appears my investment in preparation is already paying dividends. I expect to complete the statistics work and start working ahead on my fall classes before the semester starts. In this way I would definitely fit the "non-traditional student" category.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cannibalism

For the past month or two I have been highlighting different science stories that I read about, listen to on a podcast, or are told about by friends that I find particularly interesting. This week's "Favorite Science Story of the Week" once again comes from a favorite new blog I read called Not Exactly Rocket Science. The article, March of the locusts - individuals start moving to avoid cannibals, highlights some recent research on the why locusts migrations occur. The researchers note that they originally studied Mormon Crickets and found the results there consistent.

The great State of Idaho has Mormon Crickets.  As stated in the Wikipedia articled linked above they most often occur in low densities. A few years back we had a huge population explosion in our area. In some cases they were so thick that they caused a car crash due to them making the road slippery. The highway department actually cleared the road with a snowplow! I remember mountain biking through swarms.  They would jump up, hitting your legs and bike, squishing in the trail, etc. It was all quite disgusting. But most disgusting of all is that they are cannibals.  Once one is run over on the trail, the others swarm in to fight over the carcass.  This of course leads to more being run over and more cannibalism.

One of my observations from the cricket explosion was that all of these crickets appeared to be walking in the same direction.  At least when they weren't fighting over their dead brethren. On a 15 mile mountain bike ride, all of the crickets would be walking in one particular direction. I remember wondering at the time what this was all about.

This new research study on locusts illustrates the primary reason they all start marching - to prevent the cricket behind them from eating them. Once the density reaches a certain level, they start watching their backs and moving out of the way.  In large populations this results in a migration largely in a particular direction. The researchers proved this by blocking eyesight behind the locust and disabling the nerve cells on the rear legs (how exactly do you perform nerve surgery on a locust?). With these two modifications, the locusts no longer migrated. Imagine what we would do if every other person out there was a likely predator. It would definitely have a significant impact on our cultural norms...

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Yardbirds

This weeks brings some fascinating new birds to the feeders in our yard. The first is a group of eight male Lazuli Buntings. They arrived three days ago and have been hanging around ever since.

 

The next that arrived yesterday is a Black-headed Grosbeak. This is particularly exciting as it is a life bird for me (a bird I haven't seen before).

 

This brings my list of birds viewed from my backyard (not necessarily IN the yard) to 26 species in the past year. They are as follows:
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk
American Kestrel
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Calliope Hummingbird
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Robin
European Starling
Black-billed Magpie
Cedar Waxwing
Nashville Warbler
Western Tanager
Dark-eyed Junco
Black-headed Grosbeak
Lazuli Bunting
Cassin's Finch
House Finch
Pine Siskin
Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Close Encounters

click photos to enlarge

This is a continuation of my previous post on our adventures in Yellowstone National Park titled Live, Love, and Die.

Our last day of wolf watching presented us with the best weather of the trip, crystal clear blue skies with little breeze. We knew exactly where to go - the Slough Creek wolves’ carcass from yesterday. Upon arriving we found a large Grizzly Bear on the carcass with the wolves bedded nearby. Shortly thereafter the wolves chased the bear off the carcass. The bear regrouped and rushed the wolves sending them running. The wolves then regrouped and rushed the bear. They would win the showdown for now. They all gathered to eat, probably due to spite. The wolves were clearly in a better mood than yesterday with a significant amount of play from the yearlings.

 

We watched some of the wolves leave toward their den site, some five miles away. We decided to go watch the arrival hoping for a glimpse of the puppies. We watched for a while but no arrival. We later heard that they had not left the carcass, they probably just went for a drink of water.

The next rumor was that there were two courting grizzlies near Junction Butte, just a few miles down the road. With no wolves in sight we decided to check it out. We believe that these are not two courting bears, but instead two 2-3 year old siblings still traveling together. They entertained us for more than an hour.

 

These are likely the same two grizzlies we had seen in the area a few days ago. After all of the wrestling, they laid down next to each other to sleep.

 

Karyn and I returned to the Slough carcass to find all nine Slough wolves still there. Since today is our last day in the Lamar we went up to get one last sight of the Druid Peak wolves. We found them at the Footbridge. They had apparently been feeding on a carcass in the trees near Round Prairie and then got mixed up with some coyotes. The wolves killed the coyotes and their puppies. Wolves are very territorial and very protective of their carcasses. These coyotes either pressed their luck or were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When we first saw the Druid wolves returning from Round Prairie, one of the nursing mother wolves that was left behind ran up and solicited food from the alpha male which he provided. One of the yearling wolves left behind tried as well, but got nothing. Apparently if you aren't a mother you can fend for yourself.

It was time for us to head for home. As we are exhausted from the lack of sleep, we are staying at Madison tonight before the long drive home on Sunday. The drive to Madison was non-eventful. After arriving at the campsite, we took a nap and then headed out on a walk near the river. Two amazing things occurred on the hike. First we watched a Northern Goshawk fly out of the trees and almost capture a Raven. This was only about a hundred feet away! The second, which was probably the most special event of the trip is that we spooked up a female wolf about 50 feet away. She ran a short distance, stopped to look at us, and then went on her way. Unbelievable! What a way to finish the trip!

 

The next morning before our long drive home, we once again walked down by the river. We heard a wolf howl in the distance. I then saw a grey wolf weaving through the trees. Not as close as the night before, but still quite special. We returned to Boise where it seems to be summer with temperatures in the 70s. What contrast from snow and highs in the 30s/40s.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Live, Love, and Die

click photos to enlarge

This is a continuation of my previous post on our adventures in Yellowstone National Park titled The Chase, the Carcass, and the Right Place at the Right Time.

Two new inches of snow welcomed our new day this morning. It was still falling as the van started to roll toward the Lamar Valley. There we would soon meet up with the core of the Slough Creek wolf pack. Ten members appeared high on the north ridge before seven of them came down into the valley. These would be the same seven that didn’t get to eat yesterday. They may not have eaten for 3-4 days.

 

The wolves first task was to chase off a Grizzly bear. The young bear ran for a mile or more up the other side of the valley. An adult would not be so easily intimidated. Next the wolves found an old carcass which provided something to chew on, but little else. Within ten minutes they were off to continue their hunt. Across the river they surrounded a group of twelve bull elk. The wolves would surge in to test the herd, but the elk stayed together and stayed strong. The elk would live, for now. The wolves realized the elk were too strong and continued on their way.

As they passed over the ridge and out of sight, we decided to check on the Druid Peak wolf pack.

We found the Druid’s further up the valley. The Alpha Male and Beta Male looked over the valley from high on the ridge. The yearling was down closer to the road mixed up with four coyotes. This same wolf has been harassing coyotes for four days. This time they had him surrounded and clearly annoyed.

We moved back down to Slough Creek to see if the Slough wolves have reappeared. They had. They had just made another chase on a different elk herd which proved unsuccessful. They then tried for a bison calf, there were three calves with 4 adult bison. This too was unsuccessful. These elk and bison would also live. The wolves are really having a tough time getting a meal.

We joined up with Paul for another hike down the tower road which remained closed to cars. Lots to see and this time we did find a Black Bear, the first of our trip. We were once again attacked by the killer Blue Grouse protecting his territory. He actually bit me a number of times!

We noticed that love is definitely in the air. On the hike we found a pair of Peregrine Falcons and we spied two occupied Osprey nests. This one with a bird just landing to switch duty of sitting on the eggs.

 

Later in the day we would see many pairs of Sandhill Cranes including these two (Karyn took this picture).

 

We also found a number of pairs of Red-tailed Hawks. Another picture by Karyn.

 

This evening we were about 10 minutes too late to see the seven Slough wolves return to the herd of twelve elk and successfully take one. We arrived as they were still in their initial feeding. Finally their bellies will be full, at least until they return to the den to regurgitate for the nursing females. In a few weeks they will be regurgitating for the puppies themselves.

We watched for a few hours as the wolves ate, at least 30 ravens, a half dozen magpies, a bald eagle and a coyote all joined in the feast. One death feeds many. It will feed many more over the coming days.

To finish off the evening we once again saw the Druid wolves and a Grizzly right near the road.

This will be the last post for a few days. We leave the Lamar Valley tomorrow for Madison.

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This articles is featured in I and the Bird #76 blog carnival. "I and the Bird remains the undisputed champion of blog carnivals concerning birding and wild birds on the planet. Our far flung collaboration is still the best way for nature bloggers everywhere to reach an engaged, intelligent audience." - Mike Bergin, Founder of "I and the Bird".

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Chase, the Carcass, and the Right Place at the Right Time.

click photos to enlarge

This is a continuation of my previous post on our adventures in Yellowstone National Park titled Grizzlies, Eagles, and Snow .

Unbelievable sights this morning. Upon arriving at Slough Creek to watch the Slough Creek wolves, Karyn was the first to sight a grey wolf a few hundred yards away. As it worked its way toward the den, the wolves at the den site started a huge group howl that echoed through the canyon. At least 8 wolves involved. It was the most impressive we have ever heard. It appears that the Sloughs are going out for a hunt. The leaders start out as more of the pack members group up. A short while later the pack had 12 members joining in another more impressive howl. On this beautiful, clear, calm morning it was an unbelievable sound. One of the collared female mothers was soliciting regurgitated food from all of the others, but it appeared that there was none to give. This hunt is very important today. This mother could be nursing up to eight puppies and may not have eaten for days. It’s a great viewing opportunity as they do not usually hunt during the day. In addition, they headed downstream instead of upstream into the wilderness.

As the wolves walked down valley out of sight we repositioned ourselves on the highway to get a view where we hoped they would emerge. Karyn took this shot below as they walked down the ridge line.

 

As they once again disappeared from sight, we repositioned ourselves at a place called Boulder. We were the first there. I walked up a small hill to see a number of nervous elk. I couldn’t find the Slough Creek wolves. Two other gentlemen arrived and spotted some wolves to our left. How could they get there that fast? It turned out that the Agate wolf pack was on a fresh elk kill. The Sloughs were still headed our way but not yet in our sight. This spot lies in the two packs overlapping territory. The Agates appeared to be full as they wandered back toward the core of their territory. They were only gone about 15 minutes when the Sloughs came into sight. They were still on the other side of the river on the scent of an elk herd of about 20 individuals. It was quite possibly the same herd that the carcass animal was from. The 12 Sloughs spread out and ran at full speed toward the herd. The elk grouped tight, noses held high and ran for their lives. They ran toward the river. The Lamar River is deep and will provide an elk protection from the wolves. They dropped from our sight. A short while later the wolves returned up the ridge apparently unsuccessful in their chase. One of the Slough wolves apparently saw the Agate carcass as the wolves ran at full speed to the carcass. The twelve arrived, but seven members almost immediately retreated, leaving five remained to eat. I am not sure why the others left the carcass. Quite possibly they could still sense that the Agate wolves were in the area. What an impressive morning – howls, chases, and two wolf packs from one vantage point. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The evening started out a little slow as we watched three Slough Creek wolves bedded down. We would watch as they would occasionally raise their heads. Other visitors would ask us to point them out, but then they could never see them unless they were moving. A few were lucky enough to pick one or two out. We later moved to Coyote turnout in the Lamar valley to find a lone black wolf high on the opposite ridge. It too was bedded and not very active. We were later told that this was the “Jasper Male”, a male that has been trying to create a pack on the Jasper Bench area. Moving on to Footbridge we saw the real action of the evening. First, on our way there Karyn took this beaver photo.

 

Karyn and I found the Druid Alpha Male crossing the flats near footbridge. Soon he was joined by another wolf which was soliciting him for food. On the first attempt he regurgitated a small amount for her. On the second attempt he regurgitated more, took a few steps and produced more. She ate the second batch. This third batch he decided to eat himself. She stepped in to get some of the third batch but he persuaded her otherwise. Based on this last encounter we assume that she was not the alpha female but instead one of the other wolves in the pack which are thought to have also denned with pups. Without the true experts around, we cannot know for sure. We watched as the two made their way up toward the den area. If you count the lone wolf as a pack, we had another four pack day – Agate, Slough, Druid, and Jasper Male.

On the way back to Cooke City we once again saw moose. This means we have seen moose on 4 of our 5 trips backs to Cooke City. Tonight we saw 4 moose! Two adults and two juveniles. Pretty cool.

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